In the end it was a breeze. Whatever doubts England might have had about chasing 94 to win the second Test at the end of a tormented Asian winter did not manifest themselves as they gambolled to a victory that, for the moment at least, preserves their status as the No. 1 ranked side in the world.
Lurking memories of their collapse to 72 all out, in pursuit of 145, in Abu Dhabi barely two months ago were banished as Alastair Cook proceeded from the outset at a one-day rate and Kevin Pietersen added a lighthearted singalong to his majestic first-innings century. England had it all wrapped up within 20 overs, levelling the series at 1-1 and preventing Sri Lanka from achieving their own first series win for three years.
It was a steamy Colombo day – one reading showed 42C – so hot that holidaymakers along Sri Lanka’s coast would be dragging sunbeds into the shade. England lost their captain, Andrew Strauss, for nought, bowled by Tillakaratne Dilshan as he met one that turned with ponderous footwork and an angled blade, and Jonathan Trott followed lbw to Rangana Herath as Sri Lanka successfully asked for a referral, but England were not about to wilt in the sun.
Sri Lanka, who had added another 60 in the morning session, relied entirely upon their spinners in recognition that the P Sara pitch had finally become the minefield that many had long forecast. Cook signalled his intent by driving and cutting Dilshan for successive boundaries and set the tone, scoring 30 of England’s first 40 runs. When he cut three times in one over at Herath, and missed the lot, Sri Lanka must have realised there would be no miracle.
Then Pietersen came over all Frank Sinatra, confident again to do it his way, gliding down the pitch to loft Herath straight for six. Appropriately, the match ended with Pietersen v Dilshan, reviving memories of the contretemps over Pietersen’s switch hit. Mahela Jayawardene brought the field in and challenged Pietersen to win it with a six and he did so, launching the ball over midwicket.
Sri Lanka, six down overnight, lost three wickets in a rush, but Angelo Mathews countered briefly to turn an overnight lead of 33 into something a little more substantial. Their chief tormenter was Graeme Swann who had rolled in, sunglasses not quite disguising scampish intent, to turn the game with two wickets in the penultimate over of the fourth day. He spun the ball viciously at times on a pitch that, for him at least, finally had become the spin bowler’s ally that had been expected.
Samit Patel also chipped in with his first Test wicket when Herath anticipated Swann-like turn, found Patel-like turn instead and offered the simplest of chances to James Anderson at slip.
For Sri Lanka, the onus rested once more on Mahela Jayawardene. Swann, who took 6-106 to finish with ten wickets in the match, finally removed him with an excellent ball which turned and bounced to hit the glove and lob easily to Cook, plunging forward at short leg. It was the end of a polished defensive innings – 64 from 191 balls with only four boundaries.
Jayawardene made 354 runs in four innings with two centuries and his stock has rarely been higher. It was easy to carp that Sri Lanka had not helped themselves by a scoring rate not much above two an over, but only Pietersen, whose rapid century had created the time in which England could win the game, had played with any panache on this pitch and to try to ape Pietersen in that mood would be to fly too close to the sun.
Two overs later and another Jayawardene followed, this time Prasanna, coming in two places lower at No. 9 thanks to Sri Lanka’s recourse to nightwatchmen on the previous two evenings. It was a briefly unimpressive stay, ended when he tried to sweep and was bowled around his legs.
Mathews’ survival owed much to a calamitous morning for Cook at short leg. Three times in five overs Swann had expectations of dismissing Mathews to a nudge to short leg, but Cook failed to cling to two low chances and then a third fell wide of him as Swann looked as dangerous as at any time on England’s winter tours.
There was further frustration for England, too, when Mahela Jayawardene, on 58, was adjudged lbw by umpire Asad Rauf only for the decision to be overturned on review when the TV umpire, Rod Tucker, spotted an inside edge.
As wickets fell, Mathews eventually had little choice but to formulate an attacking response, but eventually an erratic surface betrayed him as Steven Finn made one stick in the surface and Mathews, intent upon advancing to drive, could only chip into the legside. England’s run of failures were soon to be put behind them. (ESPN)