There appear to be no limits to the resourcefulness of Muttiah Muralitharan. The highest wicket-taker in Test cricket has built a stellar career around viciously spinning a dirty old ball but yesterday, with Ian Bell and Matthew Prior looking in total control and seemingly taking England to a hard fought draw in the first Test, he popped up to take two crucial wickets with a brand new shiny red one.
Bell and Prior had defied Sri Lanka, and a slightly out of sorts Muralitharan, for more than two-and-a-half hours before Mahela Jayawardene, the Sri Lanka captain, chose to take the second new ball. But rather than give it to Lasith Malinga, his fastest bowler, he placed it in the hand of the "King of Kandy" and told him to have another go. Murali responded as great cricketers do, bowling Prior and Bell in the space of three balls.
Before the breakthrough Muralitharan had bowled 31 fruitless overs. With the shadows lengthening, tension growing and Matthew Hoggard wasting as much time as he could, umpire Asad Rauf made a poor lbw decision to give Muralitharan his third wicket. Replays showed that Ryan Sidebottom edged the ball on to his pad but it would be wrong to blame an official for England's 88-run defeat, even though there were probably only 25 minutes of playable light remaining when Hoggard had his stumps splattered by a Malinga yorker. Overall, Rauf and Aleem Dar had excellent matches and Sri Lanka were the better side.
The loss is a major setback for England who, in the build up to the three-Test series, believed the Asgiriya pitch and the cooler air of the hill country would offer them their best chance of winning a Test. The second and third Tests will be played in Colombo and Galle, venues where the pitches are spinner friendly and the climate is far more debilitating. It will now be a major achievement if England manage anything but a series defeat.
Few would have predicted that the Test would go in to the fifth evening when Sri Lanka were reduced to 42 for 5 on the first morning. Then the Test seemed destined for an early finish but over the course of the next four-and-a-half days it provided an enthralling spectacle. The game swung one way then the other for the opening three days before the hosts, in the form of the brilliant Kumar Sangakkara, grabbed it by the throat on the fourth morning.
England will look back and wonder how the game slipped away from them. After bowling Sri Lanka out for 188 on day one they then took a first innings lead of 93, an advantage that appeared crucial in a low scoring match. Perhaps the lead should have been greater. Indifferent batting and good bowling reduced England from 107 for 1 to 185 for 6, and in the end they were happy with their lead.
Was it then a case of England's bowling losing its edge, or Sri Lanka batting beautifully? A bit of both, probably. Hoggard's back problem, an injury that seems certain to keep him out of Sunday's second Test, did not help England's cause. With its leader weakened England's attack lost potency and direction, shortcomings that were ruthlessly seized upon by Sangakkara, Jayawardene and the retiring Sanath Jayasuriya.
England's seamers lacked cutting edge, yet it was the bowling of Monty Panesar that will most concern the visitors. Michael Vaughan would have hoped that his premier spinner would be a menacing weapon during Sri Lanka's second innings but he only picked up wickets when the hosts were looking for quick runs.
The final day began with England needing 341 runs for victory and Sri Lanka requiring nine wickets. After the first hour and a half, a period in which England lost four wickets, it seemed the Test would be over well before tea.
Vaughan nibbled at Chaminda Vaas and was caught behind; James Anderson, the nightwatchman, was bowled by the same bowler for 11; Kevin Pietersen struck four classy boundaries in his 18 before being bowled by a low scuttler of a ball from Dilhara Fernando.
Paul Collingwood played a poor shot, chipping Fernando to extra cover, but Ravi Bopara gave the excellent Bell an hour of support before being adjudged lbw by Rauf. When Prior walked out to bat, on a pair, a quick and slightly humiliating defeat was imminent.
Prior quickly got off the mark and before too long he and Bell looked very comfortable indeed. Each played Murali with ease. Bell batted beautifully, driving the ball expertly through the off-side and playing with the straightest of bats. It appears as though he can pick Murali variations from the hand and when he did not he had the dexterity and sharpness of eye to play him off the pitch.
Prior batted exceptionally too, and though he failed to see England to a draw his 63 completed a good Test for him.
But the resistance ended with about an hour remaining. A similar delivery to that which gave Murali his world record in England's first innings defeated both players. Prior and Bell each expected the ball, delivered from round the wicket, to spin back but its newness meant that it skidded on to collide with the stumps. The dismissals prevented Muralitharan remaining wicketless in an innings for the third time in the 126 innings he has bowled in this century. Against bowlers like him winning Test matches will always be a challenge.
* The former England captain Andrew Strauss is joining New Zealand side Northern Knights on a short-term contract in January and February.
Shot of the day
Ravi Bopara had a quiet debut but the selectors must pick him for Sunday's second Test in Colombo. In his innings of 34 he played several attractive shots, the best of which was an extra cover drive off Muttiah Muralitharan. It was a classy shot from a gifted young cricketer.
Ball of the day
Lasith Malinga can be a one-dimensional bowler. He loves to bowl yorkers but good batsmen know that it is coming. For tail-enders it is a different matter as Matthew Hoggard found out when a full inswinger ripped through his defence. The wicket gave Sri Lanka a deserved win.
Moment of the day
Matthew Prior had batted superbly for his 63 but Muttiah Muralitharan only needs one mistake or moment of tiredness to strike. There was nothing special about the ball it skidded on and hit the top of middle stump yet it all but ended a courageous rearguard action by England.
Kandy final day scoreboard
Sri Lanka won toss
Sri Lanka First Innings 188 (K C Sangakkara 92, H A P W Jayawardene 51; M J Hoggard 4-29).
England First Innings 281 (I R Bell 83; M Muralitharan 6-55).
Sri Lanka Second Innings 442 for 8 dec (K C Sangakkara 152, S T Jayasuriya 78, D P M D Jayawardene 65).
England Second Innings
(Overnight: 9 for 1)
A N Cook c Silva b Vaas 4 2 min, 4 balls, 1 four
*M P Vaughan c H A P W Jayawardene b Vaas 5 37 min, 25 balls, 1 four
J M Anderson b Vaas 11 42 min, 36 balls, 1 four
I R Bell b Muralitharan 74 304 min, 209 balls, 6 fours
K P Pietersen b Fernando 18 35 min, 33 balls, 4 fours
P D Collingwood c Sangakkara b Fernando 16
38 min, 27 balls, 1 four
R S Bopara lbw b Jayasuriya 34
59 min, 42 balls, 7 fours
†M J Prior b Muralitharan 63 153 min, 147 balls, 8 fours
R J Sidebottom lbw b Muralitharan 1 25 min, 15 balls
M J Hoggard b Malinga 8 31 min, 28 balls, 1 four
M S Panesar not out 2 13 min, 9 balls
Extras (b5 lb9 nb11) 25
Total (374 min, 94 overs) 261
Fall: 1-4 (Cook) 2-22 (Vaughan) 3-27 (Anderson) 4-55 (Pietersen) 5-90 (Collingwood) 6-139 (Bopara) 7-248 (Prior) 8-249 (Bell) 9-253 (Sidebottom) 10-261 (Hoggard).
Bowling: Vaas 17-3-56-3 (nb5) (2-0-7-1, 7-1-22-2, 4-1-10-0, 2-0-15-0, 2-1-2-0); Malinga 15-3-39-1 (nb4) (1-1-0-0, 4-1-13-0, 3-0-10-0, 3-0-8-0, 3-1-3-0, 1-0-5-1); Muralitharan 36-12-85-3 (nb1) (1-0-2-0, 5-1-26-0, 9-3-14-0, 3-2-7-0, 13-4-31-0, 5-2-5-3); Jayasuriya 14-6-28-1 (1-1-0-0, 7-3-15-1, 2-1-9-0, 4-1-4-0); Fernando 12-1-39-2 (nb1) (9-1-30-2, 3-0-9-0).
Progress: Fifth day (min 98 overs, 10am start): 50: 70 min, 15.2 overs. 100: 135 min, 28.5 overs. Lunch: 125-5 (Bell 25, Bopara 25) 37 overs. 150: 204 min, 48.5 overs. 200: 272 min, 66.5 overs. Tea: 209-6 (Bell 62, Prior 35) 71 overs. New ball taken after 80 overs at 228-6. 250: 347 min, 87.2 overs. Innings closed 4.55pm.
Bell's 50: 222 min, 154 balls, 5 fours. Prior's 50: 136 min, 131 balls, 6 fours.
Sri Lanka won by 88 runs
Umpires: Asad Rauf (Pak) and Aleem Dar (Pak).
TV replay umpire: T H Wijewardene.
Match referee: J J Crowe.
Man of the match: K C Sangakkara.
Second Test: Colombo, 9-13 December.
Third Test: Galle, 18-22 December.