In the end it was the pitch that proved to be the winner. For five days the bowlers of Sri Lanka and England gave it their all, straining every sinew and muscle attempting to extract some zip from the grey, lifeless, over-rolled 22-yard strip of banality that was prepared for the second Test.
They tried all of their tricks too slower balls, bouncers, cutters, yorkers, top-spinners and doosras but, ultimately, it was all in vain. In 390 overs just 22 wickets fell, bat conquered ball and the match ended in a rather predictable and boring draw. The result leaves England needing to win Tuesday's final Test in Galle to level the three-match series, yet they will travel to the southern tip of this verdant, teardrop-shaped island buoyed by a tenacious and mettlesome performance over the past five days.
Rain simplified England's task of batting out the final day but Michael Vaughan's side were rarely troubled by Muttiah Muralitharan and his chums, reaching 250 for 3 before the heavens opened during the tea interval, a total that had given them a 53-run lead. Vaughan, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell all passed 50 but the failure of each to go on to post a hundred was the one negative for England to take from the match. Scores of 50, 60 or 70 help to keep the average high but they rarely win Tests, and a couple of England's batsmen will need to match their opponents' hunger for runs if they are to win in Galle.
England's optimism comes from the fact that they have capitulated when placed in similar positions in the past. The memory of Shane Warne hypnotising England's batsmen on the final day of the second Ashes Test in Adelaide 12 months ago is still strong, as are the recollections of Muralitharan taking 8 for 26 in 17.3 devastating overs at Trent Bridge six months earlier.
With those rather meek surrenders still fresh in the mind of four England batsmen, they chose to adopt a different policy this time around. Vaughan, who missed both Tests, set the tone; taking the game to Sri Lanka from the moment he took guard. The England captain struck Lasith Malinga for four boundaries in his opening two overs, a start that suggested he was batting to regain his place in the one-day side. Cook followed his example, cutting Chaminda Vaas twice for four in his first over. In five overs 31 runs had been scored.
The bold tactic caught Sri Lanka off guard and allowed England to grab the initiative. Vaughan passed fifty for the second time in the match, as did Cook, milestones that allowed the pair to post their second hundred partnership of the Test. It is the first time since the Lord's Test against Pakistan in 1971, when Geoff Boycott, batting with Brian Luckhurst in the first innings and Richard Hutton in the second, achieved such a feat. The last time the same two England openers managed it was at Adelaide in 1970-71, when Boycott and John Edrich blunted the Aussies.
Vaughan was the first to go when, on 61, he carelessly hit a relatively simple caught-and-bowled catch back to the Sri Lankan seamer Dilhara Fernando. As in England's first innings, when he was fortuitously caught at short leg on 87, Vaughan disbelievingly remained in his crease for a short while attempting to work out how he had not gone on to score a hundred.
Though disappointing, Vaughan's failure to post a century is not a cause for concern. Nor is it for Cook, whose rate of converting fifties to hundreds is almost as good as his captain's Vaughan has now scored 17 centuries and 17 fifties in his 72-Test career.
There is, however, something of a concern for Bell. It is obviously more advantageous to score 54 than nought but great batsmen make it count when they get in. In 32 Tests Bell has gone on to score 17 fifties he has passed the landmark in five of his last six innings but he has struck only six hundreds.
Once again Bell was in wonderful touch before his concentration slipped. He had already hit Murali over the top for four, a shot that forced the spinner to drop his mid-on deeper, but when trying to repeat the shot again he hoicked the ball towards the repositioned fielder Michael Vandort, who took an excellent catch diving low and to his left.
Peter Moores, the England coach, would rather see Bell caught attacking at long-on than succumbing tamely at short leg but he will explain that, on this occasion, the percentages were not in his favour. The wicket briefly raised Sri Lankan spirits but Kevin Pietersen, with an unbeaten 45, and Paul Collingwood, not out on 23, efficiently guided England to safety.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the Test for England was the manner in which their batsmen played Murali. Test cricket's highest wicket-taker still claimed six scalps in the match but he was made to work much harder for them. What takes place at Galle will tell us whether it was the pitch, England's tactics or injury he is reported to have a stiff back that made the difference. But in Colombo he conceded almost half a run more in every over, bowled half as many maidens, and it took him 25 extra deliveries to take each wicket.
Nobody could question the commitment of England's bowlers as they toiled away under a hot sun on days two, three and four. Stephen Harmison's form appeared to be improving, Ryan Sidebottom bowled well and Stuart Broad gave a glimpse of a prosperous future. Monty Panesar's failure to trouble Sri Lanka's top order is an issue, but he will play at Galle.
There is also encouraging news about Matthew Hoggard, who was seen bowling on the main ground during the lunch and tea intervals, and in the nets on other occasions. If England are to draw level they will need to take 20 wickets in the third Test and the return of Hoggard, probably at the expense of Broad, will give them their best chance of achieving that goal.
Scoreboard from Colombo
Fifth day of five; England won toss
England First Innings 351 (M Muralitharan 5-116).
Sri Lanka First Innings 548 for 9 dec (D P M D Jayawardene 195).
England Second Innings
A N Cook c D P M D Jayawardene
b Silva 62
183 min, 124 balls, 5 fours
*M P Vaughan c and b Fernando 61
126 min, 109 balls, 8 fours
I R Bell c Vandort b Muralitharan 54
109 min, 88 balls, 7 fours
K P Pietersen not out 45
118 min, 79 balls, 4 fours, 1 six
P D Collingwood not out 23
65 min, 67 balls, 2 fours
Extras (nb5) 5
Total (for 3, 302 min, 77 overs) 250
Fall: 1-107 (Vaughan) 2-152 (Cook) 3-204 (Bell).
Did not bat: R S Bopara, †M J Prior, S C J Broad, R J Sidebottom, S J Harmison, M S Panesar.
Bowling: Vaas 16-2-56-0 (nb2) (4-0-19-0, 2-0-3-0, 1-0-9-0, 5-1-14-0, 4-1-11-0); Malinga 8-1-37-0 (nb1) (2-0-10-0, 2-0-20-0, 4-1-7-0); Fernando 10-0-30-1 (2-0-6-0, 6-0-20-1, 2-0-4-0); Mubarak 1-0-8-0; Muralitharan 27-5-58-1 (nb1) (10-2-11-0, 11-2-35-0, 6-1-12-1); D P M D Jayawardene 2-1-4-0; Silva 13-1-57-1 (nb1) (10-1-38-1 3-0-19-0).
Progress: Fifth day: 50: 55 min, 13 overs. 100: 109 min, 27.1 overs. Rain stopped play 11.07-11.29am. 150: 182 min, 46 overs. Lunch: 152-1. 200: 229 min, 59 overs. 250: 302 min, 76.5 overs. Tea: 250-3. Rain fell during the tea interval and prevented a restart. There were 34 overs remaining.
Cook's 50: 158 min, 97 balls, 4 fours. Vaughan's 50: 93 min, 81 balls, 7 fours. Bell's 50: 100 min, 80 balls, 6 fours.
Result: Match drawn.
Man of the match: D P M D Jayawardene.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and D J Harper (Aus).
TV replay umpire: M G Silva.
Match referee: J J Crowe (NZ).Reuse content