England hope another green top will swing series their way
There is celebration in the air at Old Trafford.
This is nothing to do with England's arrival, going to the wire in their one-day series against Sri Lanka, and everything to do with permission at last having been granted for the weary old ground to be redeveloped.
Still, if Alastair Cook manages to lead England to a 3-2 series victory today there may be room for an extra row of bunting before the bulldozers finally move in. It has been the strangest of series: all four matches have been won by a country mile – England twice and Sri Lanka twice – yet neither side has been able to make their advantage endure.
After the tourists' second victory at Lord's last Sunday, it seemed that the balance had tipped irrevocably their way. England made a cocked hat of that theory at Trent Bridge on Wednesday and now the advantage seems to be with them.
The overwhelming likelihood is that Sri Lanka will again be greeted with a pitch of the type they folded on so readily in Nottingham. Robin Hood and his merry men could have popped in from Sherwood Forest and nobody would have noticed had they walked across the pitch wearing their outfits of Lincoln Green.
If that is an exaggeration, England will not be asking for a reversion to the sort of pitches on which they lost the second and third matches when there was scant lateral movement of the ball and the bowlers found wickets hard to come by. They know what their bowlers prosper on.
"I think we're getting a bit too carried away with the wickets," said Cook yesterday. "To me it's our skill levels at times, and sometimes we haven't been good and haven't won. I think quite a lot has been made about these conditions. But Trent Bridge was probably the best wicket we've played on. Personally for me, to bat on that wicket, was the best wicket out of the four."
But Cook did not deny that England favoured certain wickets and confirmed that England cricket's managing director, Hugh Morris, sent out a directive at the beginning of the year stipulating what kind of pitches they might like.
Clearly, not everyone took note as the dry, white pitches at both Lord's and Headingley granted seam bowling few favours.
"As an English side we always want carry on the wicket," said Cook. And nothing wrong with that at all, as long as they know what to expect and are prepared to adapt quickly when they go elsewhere. This autumn, for instance, England have five one-day matches in India and carry will apply only to the 12th man taking out drinks at regular intervals.
Although Old Trafford will remain for spectators the shabby venue it has been for the best part of 50 years until the builders move in, it has already been revolutionised for players in one crucial respect. The pitch has been turned at right angles, now running north-south instead of east-west.
The purpose of this was to avoid glare from the dropping sun, which has often forced play to be delayed, but it may have affected the way the pitch behaves. Lancashire have played two left-arm spinners in all of their limited-overs matches at Old Trafford this summer – there have been no Championship matches so far – but then they have done that away from home as well.
Cook did not discount the prospect of playing an extra spinner in Samit Patel but it would be expecting a lot at this stage in the series. Patel has not played an international one-dayer for three years and did not look entirely at home in his Twenty20 outing a fortnight ago.
England could be bold and drop a batsman to accommodate Patel, which would give them more options. If that is improbable, the time is approaching when England must consider tinkering with their batting order. Cook is in breathtaking form but if the difficulty of dovetailing him and Jonathan Trott at Nos 1 and 3 is not obvious now it may hit them like a sledgehammer in Hyderabad in October.
Sri Lanka will not go quietly today (on the other hand they might if their two defeats are any yardstick). While they will not relish more of the moving ball three or four of their batsmen may be playing for the last time in England.
It is Cook's final outing as captain for a while. The Test series against India begins in a fortnight and he will hand back responsibility to Andrew Strauss. Only then will it be seen if the dynamic of the dressing room has shifted. Cook was not concerned about letting go of the reins of office.
"Not at all," he said. "It's very clear how we will do it. It's really good. I can concentrate hard on the captaincy and then go back into the ranks. It takes a lot out of you and having shorter periods gives the chance to refresh nicely. I'm sure Straussy is raring to go."
But Cook has taken the opportunity with 119 and 95 not out in successive innings to show those who disparaged him a thing or two. "It's not sticking it to critics," he said. "It's about scoring runs at the top of the order and helping England win. Hopefully tomorrow in a one-off game, our skills can be like they were at Trent Bridge and we can win the game. The only thing that's important is winning the game." Yes, yes, but sticking it to critics makes the world go round.
Old Trafford Details
England: A N Cook (capt), C Kieswetter, (wkt), I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, E J G Morgan, I R Bell, T T Bresnan, G P Swann, S C J Broad, J M Anderson, J W Dernbach.
Sri Lanka: T M Dilshan (capt), K C Sangakkara (wkt), D P M D Jayawardene, L D Chandimal, S H T Kandamby, A D Mathews, B M A J Mendis, K M D N Kulasekara, S Randiv, S L Malinga, D Prasad.
B Bowden (NZ) & N Llong.
Dry and overcast, becoming sunnier during the afternoon. Max temp: 19C.
Sky Sports 1, HD 1, 10.30am-7pm.
Highlights: Channel Five, 7pm-7.55pm.
The series so far...
First ODI: Eng won by 110 runs (D/L).
Second ODI: Sri Lanka won by 69 runs.
Third ODI: Sri Lanka won by six wkts.
Fourth ODI: Eng won by 10 wkts (D/L).
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