England must ditch tired old thinking
England lost a Test series in Sri Lanka by the same margin, 1-0, four years ago. As on this tour, the team competed hard in the first two Tests only to fall away dramatically in the final game. Then, unlike on Saturday, when another heavy storm fell on Galle with England perilously placed on 251 for 6, rain did not save Michael Vaughan's side.
After that tour, England went on a run of unprecedented success, winning six consecutive series. The final victory, in the 2005 Ashes, gave English cricket its biggest high for decades. England are scheduled to play the same number of series before they take on Australia in 2009 but it is difficult to see this team repeating the feat.
Vaughan's side is going through transition. Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe and Mark Butcher, veterans when England last toured here, have gone for good and there are doubts whether Andrew Flintoff or Marcus Trescothick will ever return. The current team contains many capable cricketers but it is increasingly questionable whether they will be able to reach the heights attained by their predecessors.
The senior members of Vaughan's side talk very positively about the potential of the current group, believing they are moving in the right direction. Despite the reaction of some England fans in Galle, who booed and abused the side after a dreadful third day and then hung ridiculous banners on the ramparts of the 17th-century fort adjacent to the ground, there is no disgrace in losing in Sri Lanka. Indeed, very few sides win here.
England had chances to dominate the first two Tests but they failed to make the most of golden opportunities. In Kandy, after bowling Sri Lanka out for 188, England eased their way to 107 for 1 before collapsing to 281 all out. In Colombo, having reached 133 without loss on the first day, they struggled to 351, a score that did not allow them to control the Test.
These missed opportunities on good batting pitches make comments made by the team harder to believe. Good sides containing good players ram home these advantages. They are ruthless. Because of this, one doubts whether this side contains players good enough to take England back to second, let alone first place, in the world rankings.
England's best side contains several players with extremely good Test records. Each of the top five batsmen average well over 40 and, in Matthew Hoggard and Stephen Harmison, they have two of the better fast bowlers in the world. Monty Panesar remains an outstanding prospect. When a side containing players with lots of wickets, runs and good averages underachieve there is usually something missing, and England's predicament they have now won just two of their eight post-2005 Ashes series makes one wonder whether the mentality of some of the senior players is right.
The mindset of most successful sportsmen changes as they grow older. When young they are bold and ambitious but as the hair thins and the body stiffens it becomes more a case of holding on to what you have got. Could that be part of the reason why England had to wait until the final day of the series to see one of their players, Alastair Cook, score the team's first and only hundred of the tour? Such an approach may help senior individuals remain in the side but it does not drive the team forward. If Peter Moores, the England coach, detects any such attitude, he must remove it straight away.
The way England played in Sri Lanka makes you wonder if they truly believed they could win. The batting of the man of the series, Mahela Jayawardene, and Kumar Sangakkara played a huge part in Sri Lanka's success but the way in which England's batsmen played Muttiah Muralitharan was of equal importance.
England's captain and coach seemed reasonably happy with the way their side coped but Murali still took 19 wickets in three Tests at an average of 21.63. Admittedly, these figures are an improvement, from England's point of view, on those in the previous two series against Sri Lanka. But the last time he faced the Australians, Murali took four wickets in two Tests at an average of 100.
It is to be accepted that pitches in Sri Lanka assist Murali more than those Down Under but the aim of Australia's batsmen was to attack; England's was to keep him out. England's approach may be low risk but it will not win many games of cricket. Murali hates being clobbered and, in the end, what is the difference between a 1-0 and a 2-0 defeat? The series is still lost.
Defeat and the disappointing performance over the first three days of the third Test should not be placed totally on the shoulders of the players; England's administrators must take some responsibility. Whoever agreed to a schedule of 15 days of tough Test cricket in 22 days should be asked to run around in such debilitating weather for such a period of time. It is not the first time a ridiculous schedule has damaged England's chances. Last winter England gave themselves minimal time to prepare for the Ashes. Greed comes before cricketing common sense.
Vaughan's position as captain is not under threat, and nor should it be, but consecutive series defeats and the much improved performance of Paul Collingwood's one-day side will soon result in idle talk. But the pressure on Vaughan will only increase if England fail in New Zealand in March.
Should there be any changes for the New Zealand series? Two positions will dominate the selectors' thoughts over the festive season should Matthew Prior retain the gloves and should Andrew Strauss be recalled? Prior had a bad game in Galle and needs to work on his keeping, but the only player who worked harder than him in Sri Lanka was Ryan Sidebottom and he was absolutely shattered by the end of the tour. Fatigue often causes wicketkeepers to make mistakes and Prior should be given another opportunity to prove himself.
If Strauss returns, whom should he replace? It would be harsh to drop Owais Shah, who did nothing wrong, so if anyone makes way it will be Ravi Bopara. It was hard not to have sympathy for Bopara on Saturday. Yes, he panicked in trying to avoid three Test ducks in a row, but the fielding that dismissed him was right out of the top drawer. He will come again, but not in New Zealand in a series England must win.
How England's players fared on the Sri Lanka tour
* Michael Vaughan: 215runs @35.8
Got himself in but never went on to post a big score. Needs to win England's next Test series, in New Zealand. 5/10
* Alastair Cook: 264 runs @44.0
Came back strongly after two failures in Kandy with two half-centuries and England's only hundred of the tour. 7
* Ian Bell: 261 runs @43.5
The best yet most culpable batsman. Passed 50 three times but no hundred. 7
* Kevin Pietersen: 126 runs @25.2
Poor tour. On the wrong end of a couple of decisions and received two unplayable deliveries. He will return. 4
* Paul Collingwood: 165runs @33.0, 3wkts @21
As limpet-like as ever but, like his team-mates, failed to go on. Best bowling average. 5
* Ravi Bopara: 42 runs @8.4, 1 wkt @81
Plenty of potential but not ready for Test cricket yet. Owais Shah should have played ahead of him. 2
* Matthew Prior: 165 runs @41.25
Kept wicket well in the first two Tests but had a shocker in Galle. Played couple of important innings. 6
* Stuart Broad: 1 wkt @95.00
Tough pitch to make a debut on, at Colombo, but showed promise. Needs to work at keeping off the pitch on his follow through. 4
* Ryan Sidebottom: 5 wkts @63.6
Figures do not do his bowling justice. Lots of catches dropped. Keep going Ryan, it could all change in New Zealand. 5
* Matthew Hoggard: 7 wkts @29.28
A mixed tour. England's best bowler in Kandy but he missed the second Test with a back injury and was out of sorts in the third. 5
* Stephen Harmison: 6 wkts @35.83
Bowled with great heart and encouraging discipline in the two Tests he played. England will be hoping that such displays continue. 6
* James Anderson: 2 wkts @83.50
Bowled better than his figures suggested in his only Test. Still too inconsistent, though. Needs to work out what type of bowler he is. 3
* Monty Panesar: 8 wkts @50.62
The biggest disappointment of the tour. Needs to become a cannier bowler, capable of varying his pace and where he lands on crease. 3
Stephen Brenkley and Angus Fraser discuss the Sri Lanka tour at: independent.co.uk/thetest
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