Record stand fails to paper over cracks in the field

Sri Lanka are undergoing a violent transition and have a long way to go
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The Independent Online

For a second day Lord's had a full house. Count in the members and there were 28,000 baking slowly in a warm morning sun. Everything seemed to be for the best, in the best of all possible worlds. Except for Sri Lankans who had come to support their team. There are not many of them. Like West Indians, and unlikeEnglish and Indian fans, they donot follow their team to the ends of the earth.

The Sri Lankan absentees had judged the state of the game shrewdlybecause they would not have liked their team's performance in the field. On Friday night Marvin Atapattu, their batting coach, had admitted that their bowlers had lost their grip in the last session of the day, but said that they would regain momentum if they could take the last four English wickets before the score reached 400.

But England passed 400 without losing another wicket, and they did it fast, showing a fine contempt for the Sri Lankan medium-pacers. It was a ruthless exercise in demoralisation, and any Sir Lankan who had turned up would have been as glum as the players. The fielding was ragged; concentration wavered; enthusiasm drained away. It could hardly getany worse.

In fact, it got a lot better. As the shadow of the grandstand spread over the outfield, Tillekaratne Dilshan was scoring runs as effortlessly as he did against England in the World Cup. He and Tharanga Paranavitana put on 207 and broke all records for opening partnerships in England's Tests against Sri Lanka. They were fluent and a bit lucky, while making England's bowlers look innocuous. By the close the visitors were only 255 in arrears.

Sri Lankan gloom had been partially dispelled, though the sinking feeling caused by the bowlers could not be eradicated by the batsmen. This is a team undergoing a violent transition, and they clearly have a long way to go.

There is no mystery about the relapse. Two of their bowlers are playing in England now, but not for Sri Lanka in Tests. Muttiah Muralitharan is sending down his doosra in Twenty-20 games for Gloucestershire. Cham-inda Vaas, a splendid fast-mediumbowler, is driving Northamptonshire's improbable ascent in Division Two of the County Championship, having taken 29 wickets at 21.72.

But Vaas is 37 and Murali 38, and they have decided that Test cricket is too demanding. Lasith Malinga, the punishing slinger, is younger, but has decided that the IPL is the height of his ambition.

Sri Lanka's management decided that their new young attack needed an additional bowler at the expense of a batsman this summer. Before this Test they decided to drop one of their two spin bowlers, Ajantha Mendis, and concentrate on four medium-fast men. That was a reason for sending England in to bat on a fine morning on Thursday.

Suranga Lakmal and Chanaka Welegedara responded well to the tinge of green on the pitch at the start of the game. Helped by some indifferent strokes by England's top order, they took three wickets for 22 runs. That was the high watermark of the tour so far, but England's middle and lower order moved quickly and relentlessly on to a comfortable 486.

Maybe Sri Lankan minds were still on the glamour of the IPL, to which their best performers are committed. These two Tests so far have demonstrated the poverty of Sri Lanka's bowling. The batsman may well be capable of earning a draw at Lord's, but it is hard to imagine the bowlers actually defeating England.

None the less, the Sri Lankan fans who did make it to Lord's would have been happier than they had been in the morning.