England perplexed by riddle of Murali

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England 143 Sri Lanka 144-5 Sri Lanka win by five wickets

England 143 Sri Lanka 144-5 Sri Lanka win by five wickets

It was an inauguration fit for the warrior-kings who used to rule this remote part of Sri Lanka. So it was a pity England's batsmen chose to christen it by playing like paupers. Yet their poor display paled in comparison to the one put on by a section of the police, who severely beat a spectator after he lurched drunkenly within yards of the playing area.

The incident happened as England were losing wickets faster than body fluids and its severity caused a near riot by spectators in that part of the ground. With boots and batons flying in from 30 or so khaki-clad policemen, the crowd retorted by pelting them with bottles and bricks and, for a brief moment, the carnival atmosphere looked like it was turning ugly.

With messages over the loudspeakers warning supporters not to invade the outfield, the interloper was undoubtedly a foolish man. But if he deserved to wake up with a self-inflicted hangover, there was nothing to justify all the other bruises and weals that he will feel this morning.

England, despite winning the toss, were also duffed over, though their pace bowlers did briefly threaten to fight back with four quick wickets. If, however, great strides have been made recently at Test level, their one-day game remains hamstrung by predictability. To be bowled out for 143 was self-inflicted, rather than any fault of the pitch.

Sri Lanka's response was typically aggressive and Sanath Jayasuriya scored a quick-fire 39 before falling lbw to Alan Mullally. With the captain gone, minor panic set in and the home side slid to 58 for 4 as Andrew Caddick and Darren Gough found the edge of some rashly wielded bats.

Unhappily for Graham Thorpe, playing his first international as captain, England's modest total meant that Marvan Atapattu and Russel Arnold could steady the wobble without taking risks and the match was eventually won at a canter, with five wickets and 9.1 overs to spare.

Afterwards, Thorpe admitted he had enjoyed the atmosphere but not the result. "To be bowled out for that total is not good enough," said England's stand-in captain. "It didn't have much to do with the pitch either, and we will have to give a bit more thought about how we go about constructing a score."

One way is to learn to milk spinners and it is well known around the international circuit that England's batsmen prefer pace on the ball. Even on the new pitch here at Dambulla, a strip less than three months old, Sri Lanka had no hesitation in cramming their side full of spinners. It was not as if the conditions merited it - though the ball did spin sharply for Muttiah Muralitharan - only that England's reticence against slow bowling has become something of a cliché.

Muralitharan, the man of the match, took 4 for 29 and at one stage, following his dismissals of Andrew Flintoff and Craig White, was on a hat-trick. It did not materialise but neither did the white rabbit that England had produced so often during the last two Tests. In that series, England's tactic of slowing his wicket-rate worked a treat. But if it is one thing to prevent a bowler taking wickets, it is quite another taking runs at five an over, which is what England must aim to do off him and Sri Lanka's other spinners if they are to contest the next match, a day-nighter in Colombo's Premadasa stadium tomorrow.

With all but Thorpe showing an inability in this area - the captain finished unbeaten on 62 from 107 balls - it was perhaps ironic that the early breach should have been come from the opening bowler, Nuwan Zoysa, especially against a player of Alec Stewart's pedigree against pace.

Before this match, Stewart's one-day form over the past year has been stupendous. In his last 12 matches, he had scored 553 runs, at an average of 61. That figure did not look dropping here either, especially after he struck Zoysa for a mighty six over long-off. A pull for four off Chaminda Vaas followed but, just as it looked as if he was set to dominate, he played around a ball from Zoysa that came back at him and was bowled.

The wicket seemed to set the strike skittle ball rolling and Graeme Hick, despite the barnstorming century he got in the practice match on Wednesday, reverted back to his recent dithering. After playing himself in for nine balls, he holed out for two, skewing a loose drive to mid-on.

Marcus Trescothick, who struggled to find any fluency, was then bowled by the part-time off-spinner Arnold, whose figures here were considerably more flattering than those at Colombo cricket club the other day, where his two overs had cost 32 runs.

At that point, with England's score 75 for 3, the maestro Muralitharan - who was later fined 65 pre cent of his match fee and given a three-match suspended ban for dissent - stepped forward. With the wall of noise from bands veering from Mexican mariachi to straight ahead marching, his destruction of England's middle-order as five wickets were lost for 26 runs looked and sounded like bedlam. His luring of Flintoff down the pitch and into a lumbering demise was spin bowling at its apogee, though his next ball, a perfectly pitched top-spinner which White edged to slip, was not far short of perfection either.

If England harbour serious ambitions of getting back into this series, as they did in the Tests after losing at Galle, they will need to find some answers to his riddles.