England no longer make the mistake of using tour practice matches as elaborate experiments. They hit on the idea a couple of years back of playing them as if they were games of cricket to be won (or lost) rather than an exercise hatched in some cricketing laboratory involving multitudes of players coming on and off the pitch, retiring out, not fielding, bowling a bit, generally messing around with the laws of the game without clear purpose.
It was preparation for international cricket devised by Baron Frankenstein. Lately, however, everybody knows what they might be doing when the serious stuff starts, there is an outside chance of players being match-hardened and, as a neat sideline which seemed to have eluded previous managements, it is much more respectful to the hosts.
In keeping with this revolutionary policy (11 men play 11 men in game of cricket shock), the tourists duly won the opening contest in Sri Lanka yesterday. England's efficiency was buttressed by the Sri Lanka Board XI's complete lack of gumption and it was a perfectly straightforward victory, by an innings and 15 runs, except in one regard.
No doubt frazzled by the heat and the umpires' refusal to play ball with what looked like a wholly legitimate appeal for a slip catch, England showed their annoyance. That it was Andrew Strauss, their captain, who was claiming to have caught Dilruwan Perera, moving forward and scooping the ball, merely magnified the incident. Strauss is generally assumed to make Caesar's wife seem like a trollop, and for the umpires not to take his word clearly perplexed him and the team.
Jimmy Anderson, the wronged bowler, said afterwards: "Straussy thought he'd caught it and the batsman questioned it. The umpires couldn't see it so they couldn't give it out. It was just frustrating; with Straussy being the honest upstanding citizen that he is, he wouldn't lie about something like that. Add the heat into it and it was a lesson for us that situations like that are going to be hard to deal with and we have to deal with them well."
As a whole the match gave England a proper opportunity to examine their options for what is a tricky little assignment. At stake is their status as the world's top-ranked Test team. While England are assured of the $175,000 (£110,000) bonus from the ICC for reaching 1 April in the top spot, they could still go home a week later in second place.
Assuming South Africa complete a 2-0 series win against a hapless New Zealand in the next fortnight, England must defeat Sri Lanka to stay in front. Whatever happens it adds plenty of spice (as if that were needed) to the three-match contest between England and South Africa this summer.
First, however, it would be extremely handy to defeat Sri Lanka, something England have fallen far short of doing on the previous two tours, though Muttiah Muralitharan was still around then. England have to decide whether they think four bowlers will be enough take 20 Sri Lankan wickets in sufficient time for them to win at least one of the Tests,given the stifling, humid heat and the standard of the opposition.
The signs from this match, despite the light years separating the batting quality of the Board XI from that of the Test XI, are that it will. Anderson and Steve Finn were a handful with the new ball in both innings and took early wickets, which is likely to be crucial in at least one innings of a Test.
Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar bowled well in tandem, and it may not be a bad thing that a little sideshow competition is developing about who is the more effective. Swann is still the man in residence and will presumably remain so for lots of reasons – not least his astuteness, his batting and his slip fielding – but it is healthy that Panesar is stating a case. How uplifting it would be for both to play regularly, but that is for the realms of fancy.
England have enviable fast-bowling resources of a depth perhaps not seen since the Fifties and early Sixties. Despite the wilfulness of their opponents it was a pleasure yesterday to watch the particular duo on duty in operation. England declared overnight on 303 for 8, leaving the run machine, Alastair Cook, 163 not out, and Anderson struck in the first over of the day when Ashen Silva obligingly drove him on the up to cover.
Shortly after, Finn had Bhanuka Rajapaksa caught at second slip, half-heartedly driving. Wickets tumbled thereafter, mostly to catches behind the wicket from balls that had to be played but were not dealt with well. Swann took three wickets, more than Panesar for once, and it was all done before tea.
Sri Lanka Board XI First innings 169 (WAAM Silva 66, MS Panesar 5-37, JM Anderson 4-19)
England XI First innings 303-8dec (AN Cook 163no)
Sri Lanka Board XI Second innings
Balls 4s 6s
WAAM Silva c Bopara b Anderson 0 3 0 0 FDM Karunaratne b Swann 31 71 3 0 PBB Rajapaksa c Swann b Finn 9 21 1 0 ARS Silva c Strauss b Anderson 12 81 2 0 †*HAPW Jayawardene c Anderson b Finn 0 6 0 0 SC Serasinghe c Cook b Swann 5 9 1 0 MDK Perera c †Prior b Finn 6 36 1 0 KG Alvitigala c †Prior b Swann 0 4 0 0 HMCM Bandara not out 28 70 3 0 TP Gamage lbw b Panesar 19 38 4 0 WGHN Premaratne lbw b Anderson 0 1 0 0 Extras (lb 9) 9 Total (56.4 overs) 119
Fall: 1-0, 2-25, 3-51, 4-51, 5-62, 6-62, 7-63, 8-79, 9-118.
Bowling: JM Anderson 11.4-5-21-3; ST Finn 13-5-24-3; MS Panesar 18-8-32-1; GP Swann 14-5-33-3.
Umpires: RA Kottahachchi and RR Wimalasiri.
England XI win by an innings and 15 runs