Cricket: Mullally silences the hit men

Cricket World Cup: England paceman takes four wickets for 37 to keep Sri Lanka's flamboyant batsmen at bay
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The Independent Online
WORLD CUPS invariably throw up fads and fashions and this tournament will surely be no different. For the moment, though, old-fashioned virtues will suffice and Alan Mullally showed there is still room in the game for bowlers who pursue line and length. In the opening game of the tournament at Lord's, the left-arm pace bowler took 4 for 37, a performance that prevented Sri Lanka's hit men from plying their usual intimidating trade.

Considering Mullally's efforts would have given the England dressing room a buzz between the innings, England's reply to their opponents total of 204 began as a curious mixture of flamboyance and defence. Alec Stewart may not have been in the best of form since England's tour of Australia, but his determination to be positive saw several innocent-looking deliveries given the long handle. By contrast, Nasser Hussain, preferred here to the skipper's usual opening partner, Nick Knight, was a great deal more circumspect.

Apart from one sumptuous cover-driven four, Hussain looked to have booked in for bed and breakfast. If he was under orders to bat through the innings, he ignored it when Muttiah Muralitharan came into the fray. By nature, Hussain likes to dominate spinners, but his attempt to deposit Murali into a sparsely populated Lord's pavilion ended in failure as the off- spinner's loop deceived him. Not so Stewart who, settling after some risky strokes over the in-field, notched up a half-century from 85 balls. It was his first one-day fifty for 19 innings, the previous one coming last August against yesterday's opponents.

Asked to bat first, after Alec Stewart had won the toss, Sri Lanka struggled to form the kind of meaningful partnerships needed to post demanding totals. Only a stand of 84 between the wicketkeeper Romesh Kaluwitharana and his evergreen skipper Arjuna Ranatunga prevented the spectacle from being as limp as the opening ceremony. No doubt designed and choreographed for sunny weather, a heavy shower arrived just as Tony Blair had bid the carnival to start.

A tall rangy bowler, Mullally used his height to good effect. Operating as first change from the Pavilion End after Alec Stewart had won the toss and put Sri Lanka in to bat, he extracted far more from the pitch than either Darren Gough or Ian Austin, the pair entrusted with the new ball.

Austin looked nervous and the decision to open with him was a strange one, particularly with Sanath Jayasuriya's penchant for everything medium, including his steaks. More likely is that neither Mullally or Gough much fancied the Nursery End with its slope from right to left.

When they won the World Cup four years ago, the lack of bounce on the low, slow pitches found on the sub-continent rarely compromised Sri Lanka's stroke players, who tend to be fairly squat in stature. Mullally changed all that yesterday by getting steep bounce from a goodish length, a combination that found both technique and temperament wanting.

Mindful of the potential dangers of pinch-hitting on English pitches at this time of year, Sri Lanka opted for a kind of halfway house by partnering Jayasuriya with the more sedate and orthodox Roshan Mahanama. As it was, Mahanama struck out first with a brace of boundaries off Austin. If it was out of character, an attempt to repeat the feat with a slog off Mullally just meant it was over and out - Graeme Hick safely pouching the skied slog running back from second slip.

Soon after, Hick spilled what might have been a costly chance when he got fingertips to an edge from Jayasuriya off Gough. It was a difficult chance and one that did not prove overly costly when Jayasuriya, 14 runs to the good, re-presented the chance after edging Mullally. With Marvan Atapattu having already departed, and Hashan Tillekeratne tickling Mark Ealham's opening delivery for a leg-side catch, Sri Lanka found themselves 63 for 4.

Fortunate for once with the toss, Stewart appeared determined to take bold approach. Having, no doubt, persuaded selectors that playing two out-of-form openers was simply not an option for the first match, the in-form Hussain replaced Knight. Even so, his captaincy, at least by recent outings, was both bold and adventurous.

For much of the first 30 overs, up to three slips were kept in place and he even brought in a short-leg for Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva. The positions did not bear fruit themselves, but De Silva's dismissal for a duck, failing to get on top of another bouncy delivery from the impressive Mullally, was typical of a mind distracted by a field set to scavenge on any mistakes. It was a big wicket and Mullally, as well as the catcher Graham Thorpe, appeared suitably chuffed.

With a game plan based on calculated risk, Sri Lanka have had to get used to set-backs over the years. Unfazed by their potentially abject position, Kaluwitharana barely paused for thought before playing his shots. Perhaps Sri Lankans read a lot of comics, if they don't, they clearly believe in glory, and the diminutive keeper never took a backward step in his 52-ball half-century.

Although a little less explosive, Ranatunga also played his part contributing an impressive 32, including a six and a four in successive balls off Hick, as Stewart tried to take the pace off the ball. When both fell within six runs of each other, Sri Lanka looked doomed to be bowled out for a total well short of 200. Instead, some sensible batting by the tail and a short-lived thrash by Muralitharan took them past 200 and into a contest.

Scoreboard, page 31

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