Morgan puts gloss on recovery as England take control again

England 342-6 Sri Lanka: Selectors vindicated by Irishman's stylish innings but Pietersen's problems persist
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The Independent Online

A fortnight ago, England's selectors agonised for hours about their batsmen. They sent out occasionally for sandwiches and tea and by the end of their deliberations it felt as though they could bring peace to the world.

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It was instructive to watch, if only from afar, as they debated the merits of the two men vying for the one vacant place in the batting order. When the white smoke at last wafted it heralded a surprising name.

In what can now be seen as their undoubted wisdom they chose Eoin Morgan when all the signs pointed to Ravi Bopara. Morgan had made a late dash for the nod by returning from duties in the Indian Premier League and making a lavishly upholstered 193 for the England Lions in his first first-class innings of the summer.

On the first day of the second Test yesterday, Morgan further reinforced the sense of the selectors' decision with a delightful innings of 79. It was brimful of zest and boldness, counter-attacking assertively, as the team needed him to do.

From the perils of 22 for 3 before an hour was up – when Sri Lanka's apparently bizarre, if not craven, decision to bowl under cloudless skies was beginning to seem a stroke of genius – England recovered to 342 for 6, 177 of them scored in the final session. Morgan and Matt Prior embellished the essential repair work performed by Alastair Cook and Ian Bell.

Prior blazed away in the evening sunshine in the grand manner and his cover drive off one knee just before the close was a match for Morgan's straight six earlier in the afternoon. No one made a century (or they have not yet) but it really did feel as though the international season was starting properly.

As England have won four of their last five Tests by an innings it would be folly as well as unfair to lambast them. But the batting that caused the early dismissals, including that of Kevin Pietersen who now needs runs more than Nick Clegg needs votes, was not from the topmost drawer.

The recovery was launched by Alastair Cook, who made 96, the only surprise being that he did not secure the extra four runs for his hundred. Barely a year has passed since the general feeling existed that Cook could no longer hold a bat.

His feet moved, if they moved at all, with the reluctance of a man in diving boots treading through quicksand; he might as well have delivered embossed invitations to bowlers to ensnare him lbw or have him caught somewhere, anywhere, behind the wicket. He was about to be batting toast.

Since 20 August last year, Cook has scored 1,115 runs in 11 innings, with five hundreds and three other fifties, an aggregate in such a span unmatched by any other England player. He deserved a sixth hundred yesterday for forging his runs, and eloquent they were, too – in adversity.

Lots might have changed since that day at The Oval when Cook resumed on 0 not out overnight and, on a sporting pitch, eked out a defiant century that he suspects saved his career. It would be a slight exaggeration to suggest that he now has the footwork of Fred Astaire but his move to the ball has become decisive instead of hesitant. He is confident, not wary, and it is not a complete mirage that he makes bowlers feed his strengths.

Along the dressing room a little, his colleague Pietersen might look at Cook and think that therein lies his possible salvation. If he continues to work hard in the nets, as Cook did, the wheel, Pietersen must think, will turn.

For Pietersen, the craft of batsmanship is as grim now as it was for Cook a year ago. Perhaps it is grimmer, because the expectations remain higher. With the declamations of the England management that this would be a successful summer for him doubtless ringing in his ears, Pietersen was out to his eighth ball yesterday.

That two wickets had already fallen to Sri Lanka after they opted to bowl hardly enhanced the wisdom of his stroke, driving a wide ball to gully. The two men who preceded him in quick succession on the long walk through the Long Room were almost as culpable.

England's captain, Andrew Strauss, who said he too would have thought of bowling had he won the toss, seemed to misjudge the line as he moved across his stumps and was lbw. Jonathan Trott proved that he is not invincible (not yet anyway) by deciding to ask for a review when he was given lbw to his ninth ball. Since he played across the line and the ball from Suranga Lakmal swung in slightly and would clearly have gone on to hit the stumps it was optimistic.

What England do now with Pietersen is probably keep picking him for a while. There is definitely a mood in the country among ordinary fans that he should be dropped but then the country would bring back hanging.

He has some goodwill left in store but it is plainly becoming ridiculous when yet another England management, asked a perfectly valid question, answers banally that Pietersen is on the verge of a successful summer. Of course he is a good player – he is not yet in crisis, but after facing 19 balls in his two Test innings so far this summer he is not in clover either. Cook's example remains instructive.

Had Sri Lanka taken a fourth England wicket before lunch, the reconstruction would have been more difficult. Bell nearly obliged several times, thrice edging towards the slip cordon but was saved by playing with soft hands and ensuring the ball dropped short. He nearly had his off stump taken when he missed a drive but survived. As did England who finished the day much stronger and Sri Lanka's bowling began to look what it is.

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