First Test Match

Sri Lanka v England 2007-07

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

At Kandy, December 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 2007. Sri Lanka won by 88 runs. Toss: Sri Lanka. Test debut: R. S. Bopara.

If and when a new cricket stadium is opened in the dry region of Sri Lanka's hill district near Kandy, the Asgiriya Stadium will be fondly remembered. Much like the old Test venue in Antigua, Trinity College's school ground has had more than its share of memorable matches. The St John's Recreation Ground will for ever be associated with Viv Richards and Andy Roberts; Asgiriya with the two great cricketing sons of Kandy, Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara.

They were the match-winners in a classically fluctuating five-day Test, in which England came within 20 minutes of saving a game they had controlled until Vaughan was given out caught off his pad on the second morning. It was Muralitharan's first wicket of a match in which, driven by destiny and his own genius, he eventually went past Shane Warne's world record of 708 wickets, and so forward to who knows what uncharted waters. Talk of 1,000 Test wickets may have been fanciful, in view of recent operations on his bowling shoulder and bicep, but there was no sign that his passion for cricket or his ambition for success had faded, even after a mauling by Australia immediately before this match.

As usual in Tests between Sri Lanka and all bar Australia, Murali made the difference in the end. By dominating him (he took only four wickets in two Tests at 100 runs each) Australia had made themselves appear more superior to a distinguished Sri Lankan team than they actually were. But against England, following Marvan Atapattu's retirement, the other senior players all made important contributions. Sangakkara continued his brilliant run of form since being obliged to hand the wicketkeeping gloves to the sparkling Prasanna Jayawardene, extending his aggregate to 1,529 in 14 innings at an average of 152. In his 110th and, by his own choice, final Test, Jayasuriya led the second-innings recovery, hitting six fours in an over from Anderson. Mahela Jayawardene helped Sangakkara to turn recovery into control, and Vaas, in his 100th Test, twice took Cook's wicket in the first over.

England had one vital piece of ill fortune that transcended a couple of untimely umpiring decisions. The recurrence of Hoggard's back injury, just when he had returned to his best form, left them without the necessary penetration to follow up a first-innings advantage of 93 that should have been decisive. England had a very successful first day, undermining Sri Lanka by applying the fundamental principles of good bowling. Fred Trueman used to go on about line and length until his pipe smoke was blue: he would have been proud of the way that Hoggard pitched the ball up, got a little newball swing but, above all, hit the seam on a length during the ten-over spell of four for 21 with which he started from the Hunnasgiriya (Pavilion) End.

Neither the pitch nor bad batting was to blame: just fine bowling by a cricketer who has excelled on the subcontinent by learning that, when the ball goes soft and batsmen get set, accurate line and the right length are the themes on which variations of cut and changes of pace need to be grafted. Taking three wickets in 12 balls by inducing edges to the wicketkeeper, Hoggard reduced Sri Lanka to 42 for five before the two keepers, Sangakkara and his successor Jayawardene, added 106. Sidebottom and Anderson gave useful support, Vaughan was at his sharpest and most intuitive in adjusting his field placings, Collingwood took a brilliant leaping catch and Panesar rose to the occasion. Both teams had weak tails and there was no escaping a top-class spinner getting some turn.

Sangakkara played with simple ease until getting himself out in the belief that the tail could not last. Before the close Cook missed a straight ball when going too far across his stumps and Vaughan, lucky to survive an lbw appeal from Malinga before scoring, had to struggle through to the inevitable stoppage for bad light, but Bell played superbly. On the second day, after Vaughan was given out, Bell tried unsuccessfully to attack Muralitharan by leaving his crease and was caught at short midwicket. The record became inevitable once Pietersen had been leg-before and Bopara, in his first Test, caught behind off a thin leg glance, but rain delayed the moment until Collingwood was deceived by the extra bounce of the new ball on the third morning.

His stand with the sensible Sidebottom ensured what should have been a significant lead for England, only for Jayasuriya to break free with a succession of trademark cuts, pulls and short-armed scythe-drives. With the insouciant Vandort holding an end, Sri Lanka were already 20 ahead when the fading Hoggard trapped Jayasuriya on the crease. On the fourth day, Sangakkara took command of the game with the equally orthodox and accomplished Mahela Jayawardene. Sangakkara batted without a blemish until suddenly remembering that he had not yet scored a hundred against England - he was badly dropped by Bell at first slip off Sidebottom on 98, but went on to complete his set of centuries against all nine Test opponents. He also became the first batsman to reach 150 in four consecutive Tests.

If Sri Lanka's declaration was preceded by a delayed attempt to accelerate on a dry pitch that deteriorated little and remained slow throughout, it still left time for them to take the crucial second new ball at the climax of the final day. England had just over a day to chase 350, or to survive. Vaas and Fernando made it easier for the home team with excellent spells on the fifth morning, but Bell timed the ball effortlessly and justified thoroughly his promotion from No. 6, while Prior, reminding everyone of his quality as a batsman, batted equally calmly through 44 overs to extend the drama. The chief surprises on the exciting final day were that Muralitharan did not extend his match haul to double figures for the 21st time, and that it took him 32 overs before the extra bounce of the second new ball enabled him to remove both of the seventh-wicket obstacles in the space of three balls.

Partisan England supporters booed umpire Asad Rauf when television replays confirmed that a shocked Sidebottom had been given out lbw off the inside edge, but a searing Malinga yorker removed Hoggard, visibly pained by his back, to complete Sri Lanka's triumph with six full overs remaining.

The collapse of part of the tatty corrugated iron roof on the Singer Stand on the last day, injuring four spectators, was a reminder that for all its scenic beauty Asgiriya either needs a refit or to be confined to history.

Man of the Match: K. C. Sangakkara.

© John Wisden & Co.