Belief of proud hosts can keep England in check

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The Independent Online

In the angst enveloping England and how good they may or may not become, the opposition has been slightly overlooked. England are building from here on towards the 2009 Ashes and beyond. They need somehow to assemble a sequence of good results (and that means winning, not simply competing ferociously) to have any chance of defeating Australia. To get on a roll.

That roll should preferably start here in the next few days. But standing in the tourists' way are Sri Lanka who, conversely, are not about to roll over. As they demonstrated determinedly in the First Test, there is something about the home side, something connected with pride, passion, belief, destiny.

It is compelling to witness. Of course, they have Muttiah Muralitharan, a man who takes more than a third of their wickets and without whom everything might be different. Yet they are not a one-man team, any more than Australia were when they had Shane Warne.

For a few minutes at the Singhalese Sports Club nets yesterday, their immensely impressive captain, Mahela Jayawardene, outlined how his team have reached this point and where they intend to go. Listening to him, and to his senior lieutenant, Kumar Sangakkara, before and during this series, has been a pleasure. Here are thoughtful men with a feel for the past and a vision of the future.

With his innings of 92 and 152 in the First Test, Sangakkara has moved to No 1 in the official ICC world rankings. He is alongside Murali, who is the No 1 bowler by a street.

"It's amazing for such a small country," said Jayawardene. "We have played some really good cricket over the last couple of decades. But it really started with the 1996 group. They showed us things which as youngsters we would probably never have dreamed of. They showed us that if we believe in ourselves we can definitely be one of the best teams in the world."

Extremely resonant words. Jayawardene recognised that his team's achievements could not have been possible without his immediate forebears. He and his men are repaying the debt.

There was, no doubt, the image of the former captain Arjuna Ranatunga in Jayawardene's mind. It was Ranatunga who merged flair with belief and a hard-nosed attitude. Some (usually opposition players) did not like it but Ranatunga knew exactly what he was about. The opposition had to be made aware that Sri Lanka were not there to be kicked about.

Jayawardene espoused the merits and necessity of hard work and the avoidance of complacency. "If we can get eight or 10 guys who are rated at the top of the world we will have a decent side."

It is no accident that Sri Lanka have arrived here, no accident that they won in Kandy. Yet behind the scenes the national cricket board is in a permanent state of disarray. The selectors can be indecisive, their coach, the Australian Trevor Bayliss, is still finding his feet. In Australia last month, Sri Lanka lost 2-0 in one of those contests in which they were fortunate to finish second. Jayawardene sounded as though he was not prepared to let England erode those reserves of belief any further.

"It is to do with the brand of cricket we play," he said. "We are not afraid to express ourselves, whether it is Test cricket or one-day cricket. Doing that helps us be the best we can be."

It was always going to be hard for England to get back into this series, as Michael Vaughan recognised in coming to terms with Matthew Hoggard's absence. It is hard to win away anywhere and only Australia do it more often than they lose. Hearing what Jayawardene said, it got harder.