A match involving Sri Lanka rarely passes without Muttiah Muralitharan making a major contribution and yesterday, in the process of drawing level with Shane Warne as the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket with 708 victims, his genius helped change the course of another Test. It would be hyperbole to state that England were in total control while Michael Vaughan and Ian Bell were adding 107 runs for the second wicket, but the tourists were looking comfortable and a sizeable first-innings lead appeared probable. But then Muralitharan struck four times and the smiles in the England dressing suddenly transformed to frowns.
Heavy rain brought a premature end to the second day's play with England precariously placed on 186 for 6, still two runs behind Sri Lanka's first innings score of 188. The downpour, which some locals are saying is monsoonal, also prevented Muralitharan from taking the wicket that would place him on a pedestal looking down on every other bowler the game has produced. And with only Matthew Hoggard, Monty Panesar and James Anderson to follow Paul Collingwood and an unconvincing Ryan Sidebottom, it can only be the weather that further delays Murali taking a possibly permanent place at the top of the list.
It was the contentious dismissal of Vaughan that gave Sri Lanka the opportunity to claw their way back into the first Test. The England captain was never in total control against Muralitharan (who is?) yet he was somewhat unfortunate to be given out caught at silly mid-off. Vaughan had played several pleasant strokes in his 39, particularly off Dilhara Fernando when the seamer strayed on to his legs, and for his entire innings he seemed content to play in Bell's slipstream.
The innings ended when he pushed innocently forward to Murali and the ball popped up to Chamara Silva on the off side. The close fielders appealed in unison and Aleem Dar raised his finger. Vaughan had every reason to look unhappy; his bat did not touch the ball. But as he walked from the middle he must have realised that fortune had been on his side the previous evening, when he ought to have been given out lbw to Lasith Malinga for nought.
Bell is becoming a high-quality batsman. An excellent technique, good hands and a sharp eye allow him to play pace and spin equally well, and there were times yesterday when he even looked comfortable against Muralitharan. In his 83 the majority of his 12 boundaries were drives off the seamers, but he possesses the ability to score runs all around the wicket.
Bell's innings often progress in stages. There are spells where he seems happy to defend and remain watchful, others when he appears obsessed with imposing himself on the bowling. In the over in which he was out he was trying to be positive. An aborted shimmy down the pitch and an attempted sweep failed to knock Murali off his length, before another venture out of his crease with the intent of hitting the spinner down the ground for a single resulted in the ball being chipped to Silva at mid-wicket, who took a superb diving catch.
There will be those who criticise Bell for getting out in such a manner with the game there to be won and a hundred looming, but what else was he supposed to do? Would it have been better if he had remained in his crease, allowing Muralitharan to bowl at him before offering short-leg a simple catch?
That is the attitude that filled the England dressing-room in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and it brought little success. Then batsmen were more preoccupied with how their dismissal looked on television and what the commentators were saying than actually getting out. The last thing a batsman wanted to do was get out to what was perceived to be a reckless shot. If it was a good ball then he was happy, that the media could not give him too much stick. This England side contains players with a far more positive approach, and while recklessness should not be encouraged, the desire to play fearless cricket should be.
Kevin Pietersen is a player possessing little self-doubt. Before the series he admitted that he would have to show greater patience when batting here. And he did, but it did not prevent him from playing the occasional extravagant shot. One such stroke, a reverse-sweep for four, was played to Muralitharan. It was a shot no other batsman in the world would have had the nerve to play.
Yet, on 31, Pietersen fell lbw prodding defensively at Muralitharan. His facial expression highlighted his disappointment with the umpire's decision, but the ball would have gone on to hit his stumps. The sharp spin Muralitharan extracts from a pitch means that it is often hard for him to threaten the stumps when bowling over the wicket. It results in him bowling too wide of off-stump. In order to correct the problem he often bowls round the wicket to right handers. Then, with the angle, he can pitch balls on the stumps that will go on to hit them. And it was such a delivery that dismissed Pietersen.
With Pietersen gone and England 18 runs in arrears on 170 for 4, Sri Lanka were right back in the game. And that belief increased further following the quick departure of Ravi Bopara, on debut, and Matthew Prior. Bopara was unfortunate, in that he was caught down the leg side, but Prior played a careless shot, chipping Fernando, in the middle of an excellent spell, to mid-wicket.
When Hoggard led England off on Saturday afternoon with the fine figures of 4 for 29 against his name he would have believed that his next spell would be protected by a sizeable lead. Unless the Yorkshireman and his fellow tail-enders can tame Muralitharan for a fair while he will need similar figures in Sri Lanka's second innings to prevent England facing an uncertain future.
Scoreboard from Kandy
First and second days; Sri Lanka won toss
Sri Lanka First Innings
M G Vandort c Vaughan b Hoggard 8
41 min, 22 balls, 1 four
S T Jayasuriya c Pietersen b Sidebottom 10
12 min, 12 balls, 2 fours
K C Sangakkara c Collingwood b Anderson 92
250 min, 159 balls, 13 fours
*D P M D Jayawardene c Prior b Hoggard 1
23 min, 12 balls
L P C Silva c Prior b Hoggard 2
8 min, 6 balls
J Mubarak c Prior b Hoggard 0
4 min, 5 balls
†H A P W Jayawardene c Cook b Panesar 51
131 min, 102 balls, 9 fours
W P U C J Vaas b Panesar 12
25 min, 22 balls, 2 fours
C R D Fernando c Vaughan b Panesar 0
14 min, 11 balls
S L Malinga not out 1
13 min, 7 balls
M Muralitharan run out (Bopara-Anderson) 1
2 min, 1 ball
Extras (lb8 nb2) 10
Total (266 min, 59.4 overs) 188
Fall: 1-11 (Jayasuriya) 2-29 (Vandort) 3-40 (DPMD Jayawardene) 4-42 (Silva) 5-42 (Mubarak) 6-148 (H A P W Jayawardene) 7-180 (Vaas) 8-182 (Fernando) 9-186 (Sangakkara) 10-188 (Muralitharan).
Bowling: Sidebottom 15-1-58-1 (6-0-24-1, 2-0-13-0, 3-1-6-0, 4-0-15-0); Hoggard 14-3-29-4 (nb1) (10-3-21-4, 4-0-8-0); Anderson 15.4-3-39-1 (6-2-19-0, 5-0-11-0, 4.4-1-9-1); Bopara 1-0-8-0 (nb1), Panesar 14-4-46-3 (one spell each).
Progress: First day: 50: 93 min, 18.5 overs. Lunch: 86-5 (Sangakkara 39, H A P W Jayawardene 23) 25 overs. 100: 145 min, 30.3 overs. 150: 215 min, 46.4 overs. Tea: 180-7 (Sangakkara 86, Fernando 0) 53 overs. Innings closed 3.57pm.
Sangakkara's 50: 145 min, 80 balls, 7 fours. H A P W Jayawardene's 50: 123 min, 84 balls, 9 fours.
England First innings
(Overnight: 49 for 1)
A N Cook lbw b Vaas 0
1 min, 3 balls
*M P Vaughan c Silva b Muralitharan 37
153 min, 108 balls, 5 fours
I R Bell c Silva b Muralitharan 83
186 min, 125 balls, 12 fours
K P Pietersen lbw b Muralitharan 31
75 min, 57 balls, 6 fours
P D Collingwood not out 14
91 min, 53 balls, 1 four
R S Bopara c H A P W Jayawardene b Muralitharan 8
26 min, 22 balls
†M J Prior c Mubarak b Fernando 0
13 min, 6 balls
R J Sidebottom not out 1
9 min, 11 balls
Extras (b5 nb7) 12
Total (for 6, 280 min, 63 overs) 186
Fall: 1-0 (Cook) 2-107 (Vaughan) 3-132 (Bell) 4-170 (Pietersen) 5-182 (Bopara), 6-185 (Prior).
To bat: M J Hoggard, J M Anderson, M S Panesar.
Bowling: Vaas 15-3-60-1 (nb2) (7-3-18-1, 3-0-16-0, 5-0-26-0); Malinga 11-1-54-0 (nb5) (5-1-20-0, 6-0-34-0); Muralitharan 23-11-30-4 (3-2-2-0, 20-9-28-4); Jayasuriya 2-0-9-0 (one spell), Fernando 12-1-28-1 (6-1-18-0, 6-0-10-1).
Progress: Second day (min 92 overs, 10.22am start). 50: 75 min, 17.1 overs. 100: 149 min, 33.1 overs. Lunch: 145-3 (Pietersen 18, Collingwood 1) 45 overs. 150: 209 min, 46.4 overs. Rain stopped play 2.28pm.
Bell's 50: 85 min, 57 balls, 7 fours.
Umpires: Asad Rauf (Pak) and Aleem Dar (Pak).
TV replay umpire: T H Wijewardene. Match referee: J J Crowe.