It was like the old times in the County Championship, except it was another scorcher on a flat pitch in downtown Colombo. For the purposes both of achieving a positive result and the overall good of the game, the captains colluded in a spot of jiggery-pokery yesterday in the tour match between a Sri Lanka Board XI and England.
Harmless though it might have been – and it is important to be careful in these days when skulduggery stalks the game – it was still one of those outmoded contrivances, part of the tourists' strategy to make every game mean something. When three days were no longer enough to finish a Championship match, but before they extended the length to four, it was like this.
One side would declare, frequently behind, offer some gentle bowling to elicit another declaration from their opponents with an agreed target already fixed, as it were, and then run like the clappers for the line. This was exactly what happened here at the SSC Ground yesterday, replicated so perfectly that it almost brought a sentimental tear to the eye.
In the event, England made the 359 they needed to win from 64 overs with four wickets and 20 balls in hand. It was their second victory from their two practice matches, impeccable preparation for the Test series which begins in Galle on Monday.
Whether it brought them much closer to their intended XI may be doubtful. The balance of the side remains open to debate and was confused further by a side injury to Ravi Bopara which will prevent him bowling.
Although he is available as a specialist batsman it is a significant point for the selectors to consider. Asking four bowlers to do all the work in this heat, which is what England would be effectively doing if Bopara now bats at six, would be a risk even if it were found not to impinge on their human rights.
A note of extra caution should be sounded. England won both warm-up matches in the United Arab Emirates in January with something to spare and Pakistan then proceeded to wipe the floor with them. But this throwback was jaunty stuff nonetheless. Four of the tourists' batsmen, hurling the bat to varying degrees, made half-centuries without going on to a hundred. Unfortunately, none of this quartet was Ian Bell, who opened the innings in a last-ditch attempt to allow him to spend time at the crease. The upshot was that he faced 14 balls, bringing his total on the tour so far to 32, and scored 11. That eight of these were with two peachy cover drives for four hardly mattered. He was snared down the leg side, glancing, though only just, to the keeper.
Bell's vintage patch of last year is a thing of distant, if beautiful, memory now. To a man his colleagues are insisting how crisply he is hitting the ball in the nets but the nets never were a substitute for the middle.
Form has to count for something, otherwise nobody would ever bother with it. The early runs yesterday came, in order, from Kevin Pietersen, who crunched a run-a-ball 52 and Bopara, who was more cautious for understandable reasons.
The pursuit was then taken up by Matt Prior, who will never perish wondering what might have been while providing evidence that a temporary berth at No 6 is well within his scope, and Samit Patel, who gradually increased his tempo and deserved to be there at the end.
The job was then finished in a blaze by Graeme Swann, who swiped 31 in 12 balls. It was preferable to a tedious draw which this match would have been had England continued their first innings going nowhere.
Their bowlers made some incisions in the Development XI's order on the third morning with some new-ball movement. Then it was necessary to offer a few runs through the services of Bell and Jonathan Trott, with Patel also going for a few too many and inviting observers to speculate about his ability to do a job in a Test match.
Angelo Perera was the chief beneficiary, plundering six sixes in his 90 not out. The circumstances might have been contrived and the bowling extremely amiable, but England paced it ideally.
Three things learnt by England
That it is unfeasibly hot
Sides have been found wanting in Sri Lanka before in searing temperatures. Not these tourists, and their custom-built stamina and fitness may give them an edge.
That wicketkeepers do not have to wear pads
Depending how placid the pitch is in Galle, Matt Prior will keep with unguarded legs. "The game's moving on all the time and it's made a difference."
Four bowlers is a risk
Well though the strategy has served them, the temperatures raises the ante, as does Graeme Swann's form. If Galle's pitch seems more sporting it is a risk they will take.
Final day of three: England XI bt Sri Lanka XI by four wickets
Sri Lanka XI won toss
SRI LANKA XI First Innings: 431-6 dec (Silva 163, A K Perera 85, Kandamby 64, Lokuarachchi 51)
ENGLAND First Innings: 272-4 dec (Trott 101, Strauss 100)
SRI LANKA XI Second Innings
Over night 44-1
Runs 6s 4s Bls
E M G Munaweera lbw b Bresnan 33 0 7 33
† M D K Perera c Prior b Finn 9 0 1 33
*S H T Kandamby b Swann 13 1 1 30
A K Perera not out 90 6 8 70
K S Lokuarachchi not out 40 0 4 42
Extras (b3 lb4 nb3) 10
Total(for 4 dec, 34 overs) 199
Fall (continued): 2-51, 3-53, 4-77.
Did not bat: L P C Silva, A B T Lakshitha, I Udana, M V T Fernando,
Bowling: Broad 5-1-22-1, Bresnan 6-3-16-1, S R Patel 6-0-44-0, Swann 6-2-30-1, Finn 5-0-17-1, Bell 3-0-34-0, Trott 3-0-29-0.
ENGLAND - Second Innings
Runs 6s 4s Bls
K P Pietersen b Lokuarachchi 52 0 7 52
I R Bell c M D K J Perera b Fernando 11 0 2 14
R S Bopara c & b Weerakoon 66 0 6 100
† M J Prior b Fernando 84 1 13 60
S R Patel b Lakshitha 72 2 4 78
T T Bresnan c Udana b Lakshitha 14 0 0 27
S C J Broad not out 17 0 1 27
G P Swann not out 31 1 5 12
Extras (b4 lb5 w3 nb 1) 13
Total(for 6 wkts, 60.4 overs) 360
Fall: 1-32, 2-101, 3-184, 4-248, 5-270, 6-325.
Did not bat: *A J Strauss, I J L Trott, S T Finn.
Bowling: Lakshitha 15-0-89-2, Fernando 13-0-72-2, Weerakoon 17-0-81-1, Udana 7-1-36-0, Lokuarachchi 7.4-0-70-1, Kandamby 1-0-3-0.
Umpires: W N de Silva and T H Wijewardene.
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