England have a new bowling coach, but Sajid Mahmood did not need a specialist coach to take Sri Lanka's first wicket yesterday. It was his natural athleticism that propelled him down the pitch at speed, to pick up the ball and break the wicket before Sanath Jayasuriya could ground his bat.
And there was nothing a bowling coach could do about the first 56 balls, which went for 52 runs with a six and nine fours.
"From the bowling point of view, we didn't hit our straps early," said Andrew Strauss. At the Riverside, extras were no longer the problem.
There were only four no balls in the first 10 overs; and, unlike Lord's and The Oval, no wides. The reason Sri Lanka had scored 76 runs so fast was that Stephen Harmison, Liam Plunkett and Mahmood bowled short, outside the off stump, a gift for batsmen with gorgeous timing and powerful wrists. Harmison's first five overs cost 32 runs, and he was on his home turf, as was Plunkett.
Andrew Strauss's sweet nature was clearly coming under intolerable strain. ("Being captain's been pretty tough to be honest.") He brought on Paul Collingwood, England's useful utility bowler, in only the 12th over, and Ian Bell - who had not bowled before in this series - in the 13th to stanch this torrent of easy runs. Clearly, they were not up to the task: after 15 overs Sri Lanka were already 119 for 1.
Kevin Shine, Troy Cooley's successor as England bowling coach, could be forgiven if he had sat in the dressing room and fervently wished that he was back in Taunton coaxing a marginally better performance from Somerset's bowling attack.
Fortunately, Shine is a man who sees a glass half full. He declares that England bowled better at The Oval than they had at Lord's a week ago. At The Oval they conceded only 21 wides as opposed to 23 at Lord's. Big deal.
The glaring problem at The Oval was that Mahmood was a sacrificial lamb. The poor lad bowled at Jayasuriya and Mahela Jayawardene during a power play to a field that gave him no protection whatsoever. "I'm afraid it happens," says Shine, "but Sajid does not become a bad bowler because of one game. He is one of the best I've seen." Working with statistical models provided by Mark Garroway, England's analyst, Shine encouraged Mahmood to look for ways to contain Sri Lanka's ruthless stroke players. After a hard practice session here on Friday, Shine felt more optimistic: "Now we can carry on getting better." Up to a point. Mahmood bowled only five overs yesterday, and they cost 36 runs.
In defeat, Strauss said: "I've seen they guys bowl in practice and they bowl straight. To me, it's a mental thing." The third game in this series can only have further diminished their confidence. Right now, time would be better spent seeking advice from the team psychologist rather than the bowling coach.
Shine exhibits no evidence of it, but his own confidence cannot be helped by recent results. Mike Selvey, once an England bowler himself, wrote yesterday that the results this summer are not reflecting well on Shine. The criticism seems premature. The fault lies not in their coach but in that they are underlings. Strauss admitted as much.
The only comfort yesterday is in the extras conceded. In 42.2 overs, only five wides were recorded, and four had been bowled by Alex Loudon and Jamie Dalrymple, whose figures of 1 for 40 from nine overs plus a quick 35 suggests his promise grows. There were five no-balls too: hardly a problem.
The England bowling attack's principal problem is that they do not know how to bowl at Sri Lanka's superior batsmen.Reuse content