These are grim times for England. Almost nothing they have done lately has gone according to apparently well-laid plans, almost everything has suggestedthey are not as good as they would like to think.
To have lost in Sri Lanka brings no shame, although the scoreline of 1-0 failed to reflect the eventual gap between the two teams. England escaped with a fortuitous draw yesterday when the weather intervened for the final time. They finished on 251 for 6 with 34 overs left, still 167 runs adrift.
Alastair Cook had become their only player to score a hundred in the series, the seventh of his Test career before the age of 23. But he was out and the tail was in. Two to nil it would assuredly have been had the weather not kept interfering. England have fallen from second to fifth in the Test match rankings, and although a true reflection of the state of things is Australia in first place, Daylight in second and then the rest, it is no more than they deserve.
The Galle ground ended up looking almost as it had looked the day before the match, a quagmire. But at least a cricket match was played here again, the first after the tsunami in 2004 which killed almost 40,000 people in Sri Lanka. It represented, if not quite a resumption of normality,a fresh start.
All teams, except Australia, tend to lose in this country. But the manner of the defeat and its climax in Galle was as thunderously disappointing as theweather. In all departments of the game batting, bowling, fielding and captaincy the tourists were found wanting.
It is the sort of result after which review panels are established to guide the way forward. Having already done that after the slaughter in Australia a year ago, the England and Wales Cricket Board may be at a loss. Or perhapsthey could make it an annual jolly for ex-professional cricketersto produce well-intentioned,misconceived and ultimately confused reports.
Of course, it is premature to conclude that the Schofield Review was flawed to the point of failure, since its recommendations, though odd, have barelybeen put into practice. But, boy, when they are, what a team there should be.
Since the 2005 Ashes triumph, which was the sixth successive series win, England have won two series out of eight. Of those, both were at home, one a solid victory against a disaffected Pakistan side, the other against West Indies, who would have been vulnerable to opposition containing Geoff Boycott's mother and coached by Fred Trueman's giddy aunt.
Whatever the protestations from inside the camp, it is not difficult to detect some decline. The thrust of England's arguments are that they are a talented team (indeed a team of all the talents) in transition, who are learning and will shortly deliver. As works in progress go, however, they are a novel in which the first draft chapter does not seem to be going anywhere, or a work of art that would qualify for the Turner Prize shortlist on the grounds that few people can understand what it is all about except its creator.
Part of the trouble is that all roads lead to the Ashes. Any conversation or interview with an England player or coach invariably mentions the A-word. It is not their fault, because it is officially the prime objective of their bosses at the ECB. Win the Ashes and sod everything else. Look where it gets you.
To have a prayer of defeating Australia and getting on their knees now may help England have to start beating all other opposition pretty quickly. Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, is not saying it, as he did not say it last year when he achieved it, but he is coming to England in 2009 to win 5-0. Much of this could have been said before England arrived in Galle with a chance of levelling the series. The noises emanating from the camp indicated that this was precisely what they intended to do. It went spectacularly wrong from the moment they won the toss. Their bowling was not loose exactly but it failed to examine the batsmen, their fielding was slipshod and amateurish, while their batting was limp against authentic fast swing and seam bowling. Michael Vaughan,their captain, desperate to make something anything happen, fell into the trap of meddling too much with the field when he might have been better off telling his bowlers to make the batsmen use their bats.
They put up an improved show yesterday, but then they could hardly have put up a worse one. Cook was never bright or even in form, but it is a strength of his that he does not let little things like that worry him particularly. He is imper-turbable and he batted for almost six hours.
Only Don Bradman and Sachin Tendulkar, with eight, have scored more Test centuries before their 23rd birthdays; Javed Miandad also made seven. Cook's birthday is on Christmas Day, and for him to remain in such auspicious company a year from now he would have to score another four centuries to level with Tendulkar, another five to be up with the Don. There is a lot of Test cricket and he is an unflappable young man.
Either he or Ian Bell may easily become England's leading run-scorer one day. Bell continues to flatter to deceive, though he was undone by a turning shooter from Muttiah Muralitharan on the back foot yesterday. For all the world, Murali looked as though he intended it never to leave the ground by more than two inches his new bottom-spinner, presumably.
The real chaos, the awful truth that England were never seriously in this series from its first morning onwards (when they reduced Sri Lanka to 42 for 5) came in the 65th over, bowled by Murali. Kevin Pietersen somewhat casually chipped a half-volley to short midwicket. It has been a poor series for Pietersen, who, somewhat staggeringly, faced fewer balls in it than Ryan Sidebottom. Two balls later, Paul Collingwood was bamboozled utterly by the doosra, lunging forward and being stumped.
Next ball, Ravi Bopara, who was anxious to get off a pair, nudged to first slip and set off for a single. But Mahela Jayawardene dived, stopped the ball, threw it in and the wicket-keeper, Prasanna Jayawardene, whipped off the bails to beat Bopara's despairing dive. It was slick cricket from Sri Lanka, thoughtless from Bopara and England. He has now had three ducks in his first five Testinnings, two of them to his first ball, making it difficult to assess whether he is up to it. A work in progress, perhaps.
Vaughan found that over particularly pertinent, and used it as a motif for the past month. "That over summed up playing cricket in Sri Lanka," he said. "If you suddenly relax and switch off for any given moment they will jump all over you. Murali will take the opportunity, and as soon as he does they all go round.
"You have to be really on your game. They made it difficult for us and we couldn't make it difficult for them often enough. We lack that little bit of skill, of expertise, you need. I can't find any fault with the effort, the work or the character, but sometimes you need more than that to win series. We thought we had a real good chance here after winning the toss but we couldn't get it right in any of the disciplines."
Cook was caught behind but Matt Prior, despite a scare when he seemed to have been caught at slip, stuck it out. If he could keep wicket properly, he would be an asset to the side.
If Vaughan was candid about the shortcomings in Galle, he insisted that, by and large, this is the team, the young team,to take England forward. Is it possible he insisteth too much?
"There is always going to be the odd change," he said. "I see enough in the side for us to become a force again in Test cricket, but there's lot of hard work to go before we can even start talking about being a force again." It was the Vaughan speaking whose second initial could stand for Pragmatic.
He spoke of the need to learn after playing in Sri Lanka, which he viewed as the second hardest country to tour after Australia. It will be fascinating to hear his view on that if he makes next winter in somewhere like Nagpur, or the next time he has to wander past the home crowd in Johannesburg.
Vaughan's own captaincy is for the moment unassailable, but he needs some runs and time at the crease. The side for New Zealand will be announced on 4 January. Some places may be up for grabs, perhaps that of Prior. He should be given another go.
This was a well-attendedseries, tedious in places but marked by Murali's world record of wickets and three hugely impressive hundreds from Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene (two). The better team won, and won comfortably.