England's feat in Sri Lanka was considerable despite their grotesque exhibition yesterday of having one foot on the plane home while still playing the fifth one-day international. It was a calisthenic feat that proved beyond them, and to have finished the one-day tour by being dismissed for 104 was a dampener on proceedings to rival the monsoon that will hit Colombo any hour now.
But it could not diminish the fact that England had won 3-2 a series that few would have been surprised if they had lost 5-0. Their catastrophic batting performance yesterday, in which nobody seemed eager to take responsibility, at least confirmed that they are still a work in progress, lest anybody had been fooled otherwise. But being mesmerised again by Sri Lanka's slower-ball merchants rather let down another sterling, collective bowling display. No batsman will remember this series fondly. Sri Lanka managed to bat for only 48.1 overs yesterday, England for 29.1.
The result – England lost by 107 runs – served to divert attention from the announcement that Andrew Flintoff has had a fourth operation in 30 months on his left ankle. With a significant series victory to mark and myriad other sporting events taking place it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the England and Wales Cricket Board reckoned yesterday was a good day to bury bad news.
Flintoff still forms a backdrop to whatever England do, whether he is playing or is thousands of miles away. That England had beaten Sri Lanka without him, their best bowler, made it more remarkable, a triumph that may come to be seen as the moment when the tide at last turned.
The surgery means that Flintoff will miss the rest of the winter, and while it is said he will be fit for next summer nothing in his recent medical historysuggests cause for optimism.
If England are planning for an immediate future without Flintoff, there is also serious speculation that they may be planning one with Mark Ramprakash. His name has seeped into the public domain from the selectors' direction only days before they declare their hand for the Test tour of Sri Lanka which starts next month. Having had a first-class batting average above 100 for two consecutive seasons he is an obvioustopic for consideration.
Whether he should be recalled at 38, five years since he last played, is open to doubt. A view could be taken that Ramprakash had plenty of opportunities to state his case and did so over most of his 52 Tests with a whimper. There are precedents, however. Forty-one years ago, Tom Graveney was recalled after almost four years, made an initial 96 on his 39th birthday and then another five Test hundreds before he was 42. There may be many reasons for omitting Ramprakash, but age should not be among them.
Flintoff's ankle will cause the usual problems of balance. When England won a Test series in Sri Lanka in 2001 they had a wicket- keeper, Alec Stewart, good enough to bat at five and an all-rounder, Craig White, who was a perfect third seamer and No 7. There were two other seamers and two spinners.
This time they will pick two spinners, but in the absence of a third seamer who can bat they could be up a gumtree. There is a remote chance that two centrally-contracted players, Andrew Strauss and Stephen Harmison, will be left out. Strauss is out of sorts and Sri Lanka will not suit his style; Harmison has yet to prove his fitness.
In dropping them the selectors would be bolder than they would be in choosing Ramprakash. Since they appear to have developed a dislike for Robert Key of Kent, Strauss's omission might entail Michael Vaughan being asked to open, a position for which he has developed a dislike, although it was where he had his best days.
While Harmison has been injured England appeared to find a new pack of seamers who bowled straight. Yet they still saw fit to hand Harmison a central contract. On those grounds they might have to pick him, but on the grounds that cricket teams should constantlyevolve (and the fact that his form has been pretty awful), they might leave him behind. They will probably pick him.
There has been a classic case of evolution in the one-day team. True, it seems to have been evolution over the sort of period that it took man to come from the apes, but for England to have gone into the fifth match with the series decided in their favour was extraordinary. The last time the two sides met, in England last year, Sri Lanka won 5-0.
When Sri Lanka won the first match here, it seemed the scene set was for the sort of unwelcome repeat to be found on BBC1 in the summer. But while the tourists' batsmen never came to terms with the slow pitches – anathema to one-day cricket – the bowlers adjusted accordingly.All four of the main bowlers were instrumental, but Ryan Side-bottom was all but monumental; clever, fast, slow, a true craftsman. He will come back with the Test side to be one of the most important bowlers.
The performance of these bowlers gives genuine cause for optimism that Flintoff's absence can be compensated for. As for Flintoff, the latest surgeon to be asked to repair his joint was the Dutch doctor Niek van Dijk, who removed some extra bone, including fragments, from the front and back of the ankle. The surgery was carried out in Holland after extensive consultation with specialists in the UK, Australia and the US.
So far, of course, none has provided the solution. If Mr van Dijk has done so he may be unable to withstand the stampede which professional sportsmen beat to his door.
Sri Lanka won toss
M D K Perera c Mustard b Sidebottom (61 min, 41 balls, 3 fours) 30
S T Jayasuriya c Pietersen b Anderson (31 min, 18 balls, 1 four, 2 sixes) 26
K C Sangakkara b Shah (74 min, 44 balls, 1 four) 26
*D P M D Jayawardene c Broad b Sidebottom (3 min, 3 balls) 0
L P C Silva c Anderson b Broad (142 min, 109 balls, 9 fours) 73
T M Dilshan run out (Bell/Mustard) (18 min, 16 balls) 9
J Mubarak c Bopara b Panesar (34 min, 15 balls) 6
K S Lokuarachchi lbw b Bopara (3 min, 3 balls) 0
W P U J C Vaas b Broad (30 min, 26 balls, 1 four) 15
C R D Fernando b Broad (20 min, 13 balls, 1 four) 12
S L Malinga not out (7 min, 2 balls) 0
Extras (lb4 w9 nb1) 14
Total (48.1 overs, 216 min) 211
Fall: 1-45 (Jayasuriya), 2-74 (Perera), 3-74 (Jayawardene), 4-108 (Sangakkara), 5-131 (Dilshan), 6-158 (Mubarak), 7-159 (Lokuarachchi), 8-193 (Vaas), 9-210 (Silva), 10-211 (Fernando).
Bowling: J M Anderson 8-1-48-1, R J Sidebottom 10-2-41-2 (3w), S C J Broad 9.1-0-36-3 (1nb, 2w), M SPanesar 10-0-31-1, O A Shah 3-0-18-1 (1w), R S Bopara 8-1-33-1 (1w).
A J Cook c Sangakkara b Fernando (73 min, 47 balls, 3 fours) 28
P Mustard c Sangakkara b Vaas (12 min, 7 balls) 1
I R Bell c Malinga b Fernando (32 min, 25 balls, 1 four) 11
K P Pietersen b Vaas (45 min, 25 balls, 5 fours) 28
*P D Collingwood lbw b Fernando (9 min, 5 balls ) 2
O A Shah c Lokuarachchi b Fernando (14 min, 10 balls) 4
R S Bopara not out (50 min, 31 balls, 1 four) 16
S C J Broad c Jayasuriya b Fernando (7 min, 3 balls) 1
R J Sidebottom b Fernando (1 min, 2 balls) 0
J M Anderson c Sangakkara b Malinga (10 min, 7 balls) 2
M S Panesar c Sangakkara b Malinga (21 min, 13 balls) 3
Extras (b1, lb4, w3) 8
Total (29.1 overs, 142 min) 104
Fall: 1-3 (Mustard), 2-32 (Bell), 3-56 (Cook), 4-72 (Collingwood), 5-76 (Pietersen), 6-78 (Shah), 7-82 (Broad), 8-82 (Sidebottom), 9-87 (Anderson), 10-104 (Panesar).
Bowling: W P U J C Vaas 10-0-36-2, S L Malinga 6.1-1-24-2 (2w), C R D Fernando 8-0-27-6 (1w),K S Lokuarachchi 5-0-12-0.
Sri Lanka win by 107 runs. England win series 3-2.
Man of the Match: C R D Fernando (SL). Man of the Series: R J Sidebottom (Eng).
Umpires: E A R de Silva (SL) and R E Koertzen (SA).
Third umpire: M G Silva (SL). Match referee: J Srinath (India).