At the last time of asking on their winter travels, England finally won a Test match yesterday. Fittingly, it finished in a blaze of strokes from Kevin Pietersen, which is what had put them in control of matters in the first place in the second of the two meetings with Sri Lanka.
Played five, lost four, won one, which was the chronological order of it all, hardly constitutes a ripping time for Andrew Strauss's team, but it was better to have had four lows and gone out on a high than to have started with a high and then had the lows. It is a variation on the showbiz maxim of leave 'em wanting more. And it kept England at the top of the world rankings, albeit by a decimal place from their opponents this summer, South Africa.
In adversity, which had been England's constant companion, they kept going. Reward came in the early afternoon of the fifth day of this match when Pietersen, embellishing his unforgettable first-innings 151, bludgeoned 14 in an over to secure victory by eight wickets – their first in Sri Lanka for 11 years and eight matches.
If nothing else, and it was plenty else, it has eased the tittle-tattle about Strauss's position, provoked by his and the team's form: one hundred in 49 innings, and four straight Test defeats.
It could not, and did not, wholly compensate for the previous failures and in some ways it may have complicated future strategy. Too many batsmen were found short of the necessary when it mattered and the selectors must analyse if more or less the same batting order can be entrusted with another Asian series, in India next autumn. Three positions may be in some doubt: those occupied by Strauss himself, Ian Bell and whoever may be at No 6.
Strauss quite rightly reiterated his desire to continue yesterday and take this team on to fresh horizons, but he knows that he needs a sequence of scores pretty soon to ensure that. Of course, if England keep winning he has the perfect defence.
It seems almost heretical to mention Bell when he left England in January with serious pretensions to being the best player in the world. But he has had a miserable winter, compounded by the fact that he is such a wonderful strokeplayer. It is not so much his low scores – one fifty and an aggregate of 134 runs in five Tests, which amounts to a full series – but the way he got out. Too often he looked timid; he is much better than that.
As for No 6, who can say? Matt Prior filled the role in Sri Lanka but the selectors will be anxious to return him quickly to No 7, where he is the best in the world. Samit Patel, Ravi Bopara or a younger, fresher face will all be discussed. Many observers feel the order needs an infusion.
The bowling has been first-rate throughout, as it was again yesterday when England needed to wrap matters up quickly in Sri Lanka's second innings or face an extremely tricky chase. The tourists duly obliged despite their worst efforts in the field, with Alastair Cook putting down two catches at short leg. The fielding of both sides cost them dear in this game.
It was a pity that Jimmy Anderson was not among the fifth day's wicket-takers. He has been exemplary all winter, a master of control and purveyor of wise advice. He had no luck again yesterday and nor, it seemed, would Graeme Swann, victim of the fielding lapses. But Swann it was who made the vital incision in the 10th over of the day by dismissing Mahela Jayawardene. The ball turned and bounced to take the glove, looped and offered Cook a straightforward chance which this time he gratefully seized.
With Jayawardene, the player of the series for two imperious hundreds and this 64, went Sri Lanka's hopes of saving the match and winning the series. Swann bowled Jayawardene's namesake, Prasanna, round the legs in the next over to give him 10 wickets in a match for the second time.
For a year coming into this winter, Swann had not bowled consistently at his peak. But he responded well to Monty Panesar's inclusion in the side, after being outbowled by the slow left-armer in the UAE, and to James Tredwell's presence in the squad here as an extra off-spinner.
Swann was canny to watch yesterday and it looked as if he might finishwith eight in the innings. But Patel had Rangana Herath caught at slip before Steve Finn had to be brought on to finish off a pesky last-wicket partnership.
The target of 94 was easily attainable but evoked memories of Abu Dhabi 10 weeks ago, when England were bowled out for just 72 in pursuit of 145. And when Strauss was out, bowled on the back foot by Tillekeratne Dilshan, to the sixth ball of the first over, the nightmare seemed as if it might return.
However, Cook did not make the mistake of Abu Dhabi by becoming bogged down in the crease. He dictated terms with a couple of crisp cuts but was also prepared to play off the front foot. It was still not quite done when Jonathan Trott was lbw after a successful Sri Lankan review, but Pietersen was not in the mood to hang about.
He played like a man with a plane to catch – which indeed he had, to Delhi and the Indian Premier League, where he will strut his stuff for the next five weeks. In this form he will be worth watching even in that peacock of a tournament.
England's average winter
I J L Trott 10/0/354/112/35.40/1/2
A N Cook 10/1/316/94/35.10/0/2
K P Pietersen 10/1/293/226/32.50/1/0
M J Prior 9/2/209/70*/29.85/0/1
A J Strauss 10/0/264/61/26.40/0/2
S C J Broad 8/2/138/58*/23.00/0/1
G P Swann 9/0/147/39/16.33/0/0
I R Bell 9/0/134/52/14.80/0/1
E J G Morgan 6/0/82/31/13.66/0/0
S R Patel 3/0/40/29/13.33/0/0
J M Anderson 9/2/84/23*/12.00/0/0
M S Panesar 6/2/21/13/5.25/0/0
T T Bresnan 1/0/5/5/5.00/0/0
C T Tremlett 2/0/1/1/0.50/0/0
S T Finn 1/1/2/2*/-/0/0
G P Swann 236.0/30/681/29/6/82/23.48/2/1
S C J Broad 148.4/39/370/15/4/36/24.66/0/0
J M Anderson 180.5/34/445/18/5/72/24.72/1/0
M S Panesar 188.0/61/403/16/6/62/25.18/2/0
S T Finn 37.5/5/81/3/2/30/27.00/0/0
T T Bresnan 35.0/8/71/2/2/47/35.50/0/0
S R Patel 59.0/15/122/3/2/27/40.66/0/0
I J L Trott 12.0/2/42/1/1/16/42.00/0/0
K P Pietersen 9.0/0/31/0/-/-/0/0
C T Tremlett 21.0/6/53/0/-/-/0/0
Sri Lanka won the toss
Sri Lanka – First Innings 275 (D P M D Jayawardene 105, A D Mathews 57, T T Samaraweera 54)
England – First Innings 460 (K P Pietersen 151, A N Cook 94, I J L Trott 64, A J Strauss 61; H M R K B Herath 6-133)
Sri Lanka – Second Innings (overnight 218-6)
*D P M D Jayawardene c Cook b Swann 64/264/191/4/0
A D Mathews c Strauss b Finn 46/122/98/6/0
†H A P W Jayawardene b Swann 2/9/6/0/0
H M R K B Herath c Anderson b Patel 2/20/21/0/0
R A S Lakmal not out 4/31/17/1/0
Extras (b4 lb6 w2) 12
Total (118.5 overs, 498 min) 278
Fall (cont): 7-238 (D P M D Jayawardene), 8-242 (H A P W Jayawardene), 9-251 (Herath).
Bowling J M Anderson 20-6-36-1, S T Finn 15.5-1-30-2, G P Swann 40-1-106-6, T T Bresnan 14-5-24-0, S R Patel 25-7-54-1, K P Pietersen 4-0-18-0.
England – Second Innings
*A J Strauss b Dilshan 0/2/6/0/0
A N Cook not out 49/78/69/6/0
I J L Trott lbw b Herath 5/31/15/0/0
K P Pietersen not out 42/43/28/4/2
Extras (lb1) 1
Total (2 wkts, 19.4 overs, 78 min) 97
Fall 1-0 (Strauss), 2-31 (Trott).
Bowling T M Dilshan 7.4-1-43-1, H M R K B Herath 9-0-37-1, S Randiv 3-0-16-0.
Umpires Asad Rauf (Pak) and B N J Oxenford (Aus).
Third umpire R J Tucker (Aus). Match referee: J Srinath (Ind).
England win by 8 wickets. Series drawn 1-1
Man of the match K P Pietersen (Eng).
Man of the series D P M D Jayawardene (SL).Reuse content