Having set England a mammoth 340 to win, Sri Lanka endured a few nervous moments as Jonathan Trott, in particular, batted with great fortitude. In the end, though, the target was too great and Sri Lanka held their nerve.
It was another spinner, Rangana Herath, who led Sri Lanka’s victory charge; he took 12 wickets in the match and expertly exploited a turning surface and England’s deficiencies against spin bowling.
It might be tempting, then, to claim that Sri Lanka have discovered a replacement for Murali.In truth, Sri Lanka are learning new ways to win. With Murali in the side, life was relatively easy; his excellence allowed Sri Lanka to mask other weaknesses. Those days have gone and may never return.
The Sri Lanka team still contains match-winners, though. Mahela Jayawardene’s first-innings century – a magnificent innings – provided a welcome reminder of his genius, while Kumar Sangakkara remains one of the finest batsmen in world cricket.
Generally, however, they are now a team who require contributions from every individual.
Herath is a perfect example. He is a skilled performer, certainly. He bowls with pleasing flight, has all the traditional variations and has excellent control. His second-innings performance was his ninth five-wicket haul and left him the fifth Sri Lanka bowler to claim ten wickets in a Test.
But he is no Murali. Only three years ago he was plying his trade as a journeymen pro – and with modest success – in the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League, while a spell as overseas player with Hampshire produced just ten first-class wickets at an average of 46.30.
In these conditions, however, he is a tough proposition. And, with the support of Suraj Ranjiv and two underated seamers, he was able to apply pressure on a batting line-up lacking competence and confidence.
Herath was also supported by some outstanding fielding. The wicketkeeper, Prasanna Jayawardene, enjoyed an excellent came with bat and gloves. But, in a match that took many twists and turns, perhaps the defining moment came when Lahiru Thirimanne clung on to a desperately tough chance at short leg to end a fifth-wicket partnership that looked as if it could take England to a record-breaking victory.
Matt Prior and Trott added 81 runs. With the field pushed back, the pair were able to rotate the strike and accumulate without undue risk.
Then, however, Prior connected well with a sweep only to see Thirimanne, anticipating the path of the ball as he saw the batsman shape for the shot, react brilliantly to hold on after it struck him on the body. The dismissal precipitated a dramatic collapse as England lost their last six wickets for only 31 runs.
Defeat was cruel reward for Trott. Trott’s century, a wonderful example of patience, technique and concentration, would, in many circumstances, have deserved to win a Test. As it was, however, he was unable to compensate for the failure of his colleagues.
Trott’s seventh Test century sustained England’s hopes of a remarkable win until the brink of tea but his dismissal, caught at leg slip as he attempted to turn an off break into the leg side, ended any realistic hopes the tourists may have had.
On the final day Trott helplessly watched on as Kevin Pietersen – now averaging just 12.50 on England’s winter tours – was beaten in the flight and chipped to mid-wicket and Ian Bell missed a premeditated sweep. Samit Patel, trying to give himself room and hit through the off side, was another man to be superbly caught at the second attempt by Tillakaratne Dilshan at short extra cover, before Graeme Swann, attempting an ugly sweep, was leg before the two left-hand tailenders were soon mopped up by Ranjiv’s off-spin.
The result sentenced England to their fourth successive Test defeat. For the No.1 rated team who, only a few months ago, were talking about setting a legacy, that is an acute embarrassment.
They need not look too far to see where they want wrong. They simply made too many mistakes. In dropping Mahela Jayawardene four times during the course of his match-defining century they were profligate beyond repair. Stuart Broad’s no-ball to Prasanna Jayawardene – and the manner in which Sri Lanka’s last two wickets were able to eek out more than 50 runs in each innings (65 in the first and 87 in the second) – were also costly.
Most pertinently, though, England’s batsmen continue to struggle against spin bowling. To be bowled out within 47 overs on a blameless second day track was always likely to prove decisive. Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell (despite his half-century in the first innings) are all in need of runs in Test cricket and it was telling that, even in their second innings, when England batted so much better, they lost all ten of their wickets to spin.
Perhaps, though, they can take just a little encouragement from certain aspects of this performance. England have never made more than 332 to win in the fourth innings of a Test but, set 340 here, there were moments when they threatened to go close. Yes, they fell short, but they at least showed some of the fight and fibre that was missing in the UAE.