Kevin Pietersen made a welcome return to form yesterday when he guided England to an encouraging and at one stage unexpected victory over the Sri Lanka Board President's XI. The five-wicket win, completed when Matthew Prior clubbed the off-spin of Jehan Mubarak through mid-wicket for four, ensured that England were in an upbeat mood when they travelled from Colombo to Kandy, the venue for Saturday's first Test, this morning.
When England were dismissed for 134 in their first innings on Monday and had two of their principle bowlers incapacitated such a result seemed unimaginable. Even after bowling the President's XI out for 81 it was felt that England would have to play well to reach a target of 246, but they did in what ultimately became a comfortable run chase.
Pietersen had spent just 18 minutes at the crease during his two previous innings of the tour, and after an unconvincing one-day series here in October – 112 runs at an average of 28 – there were concerns that the pitches in Sri Lanka might not suit his style of batting. Those fears were dispelled in 86 balls of classy batting.
Pietersen was watchful to begin with, getting right behind the line of the ball, playing straight and showing the bowlers respect. With the first Test four days away he knew how important it was to reacquaint himself with Sri Lankan conditions. But once settled he began to bat in his usual belligerent manner. Several drives raced to the boundary for four but the shot of his innings and the match was a reverse-sweep six off the off-spin of Tillekeratne Dilshan.
It was a remarkable stroke, an exact replica of the one played against Muttiah Muralitharan at Edgbaston in 2006. Pietersen looked set to win the game himself when, on 59, he was brilliantly caught by the wicket-keeper cutting at a ball that kept low.
"It is always good to win a game of cricket and winning is always difficult in this part of the world," said a delighted Vaughan. "From the position we were in it was a good game of cricket to win but, more importantly, everybody has spent important time out in the middle, whether they were bowling or batting. We are in good spirits going in to the first Test."
Alastair Cook was in excellent touch too, scoring 58. Cook does not possess the dexterity of Pietersen but he is a determined and resourceful young man. Cook struggles to manoeuvre the ball around but the ball makes a reassuring thud when it hits willow. He is naturally more comfortable against the fast bowlers and he seemed disappointed to be given out lbw sweeping at Mubarak.
Vaughan batted beautifully for his 28 but he and Ian Bell fell to careless strokes. Vaughan advanced down the pitch and sliced a catch to backward point whilst Bell, on six, failed to clear deepish mid on.
The departure of Cook and Pietersen gave Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara another chance to shine. The pair offer the selectors their only real dilemma. Stephen Harmison, who had a scan on his injured back yesterday, can no longer be considered even though the results showed no new injury. James Anderson bowled in the morning, taking the final wicket in his first over, and must now be confident of playing in Kandy.
In the first two days of the game Bopara impressed most. He was lively in the field, surprisingly effective with the ball and confident with the bat. But Shah showed his quality yesterday by coolly taking his side past the winning post. Dividing the pair will be a tough call for the selectors but the place should go to the player that they feel will play Muralitharan best.
"The game has clarified a few things on the selection front," said Vaughan. Obviously Stephen's [Harmison] injury is disappointing but I was delighted with the way that Hoggy [Matthew Hoggard] bowled, particularly in the second innings."
Colombo Scoreboard (Final day of three)
Board President's XI First Innings 298-9 dec
England First Innings: 134
Board President's XI - Second Innings (overnight 77-8)
U W M Welegedara c Prior b Anderson 9
M K D Amerasinghe not out 0
K S Lokuarachchi absent 0
Extras (b4 lb2 nb3 pens 0) 9
Total (for 9 dec, 30 overs) 81
Fall: 1-9 2-14 3-32 4-32 5-32 6-40 7-52 8-75 9-81.
Bowling: Hoggard 9-3-25-5; Bopara 10-2-32-2; Panesar 9-4-14-0; Pietersen 1-1-0-0; Anderson 1-0-4-1.
England - Second Innings
A N Cook lbw b Mubarak 58
M P Vaughan c Dilshan b Mubarak 28
I R Bell c Welegedara b Dilshan 6
K P Pietersen c Silva b Kapugedera 59
O A Shah not out 33
R S Bopara c & b Mubarak 21
M J Prior not out 27
Extras (lb3 w2 nb10 pens 0) 15
Total (for 5, 61 overs) 247
Fall: 1-50 2-74 3-139 4-167 5-210.
Did Not Bat: M J Hoggard, J M Anderson, S J Harmison, M S Panesar.
Bowling: Welegedara 11-1-38-0; de Silva 10-0-53-0; Amerasinghe 9-0-38-0; Mubarak 15-0-57-3; Dilshan 9-1-34-1; Kapugedera 7-1-24-1.
Umpires: R Martinesz and WA Senanayake.
England beat Board President's XI by 5 wkts