Cricket: Few clues to Sri Lankan strengths

Cricket: Tourists' bowlers toil as Yorkshire all-rounder and Australia's batswomen shine
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Hampshire 347-8 v Sri Lanka

SRI LANKA play only their second Test in England this week, 17 years after becoming full members of the ICC. Yet the natives still find it hard to take the team seriously, even though they hold the World Cup. Only yesterday, The Times described the Oval Test as "carrying a sense of any other business" after the South African series. In other words, Sri Lanka are a bit of a distraction on the way to another Ashes series.

Disenchantment is infectious and the Sri Lankans approached the last match before the Test rather like a group of semi-detached English professionals. Ten bowlers were used, and five of the Test team gave the game a miss. For the visitors, the match was a last chance for contenders for the last couple of places at The Oval: a third seamer or a second spinner? So when Sri Lanka won the toss, Hampshire were asked to bat, despite a benign wicket.

On the evidence of yesterday's performance, the faintly dismissive analysis of Sri Lanka's chances looks as if it might be right. Maybe the support bowling - so effective in one-day games - is just not sharp enough to push for the win in a five-day affair at The Oval. Slack spin bowling from Upul Chandana, and generous medium pace meant there were plenty of runs for the top of the Hampshire order.

Giles White, a 26-year-old, mixed precise and thunderous hitting to make is top score in the first class game. There were 23 fours in his 156. Batting until the end of the day, White got nearly half of Hampshire's runs. They would have been embarrassed without them. William Kendall's flamboyant 59 included 11 fours; the 20-year-old Derek Kenway managed a quick 38, but none of the other Hampshire batsmen seized the opportunity to swell their average by a run or two.

It was probably just as well that White ran out Robin Smith for 11 when the score was 208. During his brief period at the crease, Smith was troubled by neither seamer nor spinner. But one of the absentees was Muttiah Muralitharan, the prodigy from Kandy who has taken more Test wickets this year than any other spin bowler.

While the experts can be sniffy about the Sri Lankans, the spectators appear to be more impressed, conscious, no doubt, of the excellence of their one-day record. On a chilly morning under big grey clouds, they attracted a larger crowd than most of Hampshire's county opponents can manage. Unfortunately, they were given few clues to the strengths that Sri Lanka will carry into the Test, but it could be foolhardy to under- rate them.

In six series since August 1997, Sri Lanka have won four games, lost three, and drawn five. In the Wisden World Championship table, Sri Lanka stand one place below England. If they do win at The Oval, they demote England to the depths of the table along with New Zealand and Zimbabwe. An England defeat would be much more significant than "any other business".