It’s taken England longer than most countries to wake up to the fact that Sri Lanka aren’t just here to make up the numbers any more – but you get the impression that the penny might finally be dropping. For twice in the space of the last three years, Arjuna Ranatunga’s men have delivered upon England defeats so seismic, it’s hard to imagine a day far enough in the future for the aftershocks to have stop reverberating.
First came Faisalabad, in the quarter-final of the last World Cup, when Mike Atherton’s archaic, outdated England team were denuded by the soon-to-be World Champions in a crushingly one-sided encounter – one in which Sanath Jayasuriya’s 82 from 44 balls shredded a run-chase of 236 inside the first 25 overs.
And as if that performance – or the entirety of Sri Lanka’s joyous, adventurous, cavorting run to the 1996 title – wasn’t enough of a wake-up call, then we had the events at The Oval in August last summer. Another almighty mismatch, but this time on England’s home soil, and in the format that they claim to hold most dear.
Ever since England deigned to make a stop-over in Ceylon (as most of the entourage doubtless still called it) for their maiden Test in 1982, the Sri Lankans have got wearyingly used to being granted a solitary Test match at the fag-end of the English season – in 1984, 1988 and 1991 – or as an adjunct to a tour of India, as was the case for their famous maiden win in Colombo in 1993.
But The Oval was something else entirely, as an England team that was daring to feel good about itself – having just seen off South Africa to win their first five-Test series for more than a decade – ran slap-bang into that man Jayasuriya again, with a contemptuously brisk double-century, and most of all, Muttiah Muralitharan, a player who you can be sure will be right in the thick of things once again in Adelaide tomorrow.
Not that he would seek to be the centre of attention on this occasion, mind you. Though he rightly lapped up the plaudits for his 16 match-winning wickets last summer, including 9 for 65 in the second innings as England hurtled towards a ten-wicket humiliation, his reception in Australia has been less than cordial to date, including cries of “no-ball” from the Sydney crowd during Sri Lanka’s defeat against Australia last week.
Muralitharan is doubtless getting weary at justifying an unconventionally jerky action, caused by a deformed elbow that he is unable to straighten fully and exacerbated by an extraordinarily supple wrist that imparts remarkable degrees of spin. But it is an action that has been cleared by an ICC Committee chaired by Sir Clyde Walcott and featuring such luminaries as Michael Holding and Kapil Dev, and that ought really to be the final word on the matter.
And yet…the identity of the two umpires for tomorrow’s clash might suggest otherwise. For at Brisbane three years ago, in an otherwise nondescript clash against West Indies, umpires Ross Emerson and Tony McQuillan were once again on duty for a match in which Muralitharan was no-balled five times in his first two overs – one at each umpire’s end – even as his coach Dav Whatmore was taking up residence at square leg with a video camera to get his own evidence for the furore that was sure to follow.
Will these two men dare to rattle the cage for a second time? There’s certainly a nervous expectation around Adelaide, one that mirrors the clear nervous energy that’s been in and around the Sri Lanka squad throughout their trip. Without putting too fine a point on it, they’ve been spoiling for a fight, as evidenced by Upul Chandana’s collision with Neil Fairbrother in Brisbane earlier this month, a set-to that required umpire Parker to step in. Moreover, they’ve been led with that habitual Napoleonic strut from their father figure Ranatunga, a man who wound Australia up no end in Hobart yesterday by calling for a runner for an apparent muscle strain, then cruising over the line with an unbeaten 45 to end his side’s eight-match losing streak.
England, it hardly needs to be said, would be happy just to keep their heads down and focus on the strong vein of form that they’ve located since the latter stages of the Ashes. Without quite transforming their grim fortunes from the first half of their tour, they’ve battled their way to four ODI wins out of five and a healthy lead at the top of the C&U table.
With Australia in some flux at present, amid Steve Waugh’s recurring hamstring issues and Ricky Ponting’s suspension for a bar brawl in Sydney, another win here would give them an opportunity to fine-tune ahead of the finals, and moreover ahead of the World Cup in May, their first on home soil in 16 years, which – after the disaster in 1996 – is just beginning to look like a challenge they’ll be ready to meet head on.
But in the meantime, Alec Stewart’s men have got to focus on the present, and on a team that they are all too used to overlooking. It promises to get feisty, one way or another.
England WWLWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka WLLLL
In the spotlight
As a man who turns 32 in May, it’s surely too late for Graeme Hick to become the player we all thought he might be when he was earmarked as England’s Great White Hope in the mid-to-late 1980s. But after the traumas of his first seven years in England colours, there’s a sense at the moment of a player who is finding a new comfort in his own skin, particularly in one-day cricket – the form of the game where his physical stature can offset some of the technical limitations that Test-match bowlers have been able to expose over the years. He crashed a career-best 108 to see off Australia in Sydney last week, and followed that up with a frill-free 66 not out to rout Sri Lanka in Melbourne. And given that so much about Hick’s game seems to stem from confidence, England’s management would do well to bottle his current mindset, and ensure it is in plentiful supply come May.
All the focus will be on Muralitharan tomorrow, but Sri Lanka’s matchwinners are numerous and multi-faceted. Not least the batsman that England know and fear perhaps more than any other in recent times. As England found to their cost in both of those famous defeats above, Sanath Jayasuriya’s popeye-like forearms love nothing better than to carve an unsuspecting seamer high and hard over point for six, and though the surprise element may have dimmed since his starring role in the 1996 triumph, the shock and awe that he can bring to his game when he’s in the mood remains unrivalled. So far in this series, he’s been somewhat hit-and-miss. One boundary-laden half-century, and a total of five runs from his other three innings. But you can’t be sure he won’t stop swinging in a hurry, and if he connects tomorrow, expect fireworks.
Perhaps with their home World Cup in mind, England have arrived in Australia with bits and pieces galore – the likes of Vince Wells, Mark Alleyne, Mark Ealham and the Hollioake brothers all equally capable of probing seam and swing and a lusty swing from the hip. The temptation may be to rope in an extra specialist in either department, with Dean Headley the obvious candidate in the bowling stakes and John Crawley on hand to shore up the batting. Ashley Giles could provide a second spin option to augment Robert Croft’s offies, although Adelaide’s short square boundaries might guard against that.
England (possible): 1 Alec Stewart (capt & wk), 2 Nick Knight, 3 Graeme Hick, 4 Nasser Hussain, 5 Neil Fairbrother, 6 Adam Hollioake, 7 Vince Wells, 8 Mark Ealham, 9 Robert Croft, 10 Darren Gough, 11 Alan Mullally
It would be most out of character for Ranatunga to pull Muralitharan out of the firing line, in spite of the potential for contract. Instead Sri Lanka are expected to keep faith with the XI who ended their eight-match losing streak in Hobart this week. Marvan Atapattu and Romesh Kaluwitharana, with 82 and 54 respectively, provided the backbone of their run-chase, before Ranatunga brought the match home. Nuwan Zoysa, their promising young seamer, seems set to miss the rest of the tour with a stress fracture
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Sanath Jayasuriya, 2 Romesh Kaluwitharana (wk), 3 Marvan Atapattu, 4 Hashan Tillakaratne, 5 Mahela Jayawardene, 6 Arjuna Ranatunga (capt), 7 Roshan Mahanama, 8 Chaminda Vaas, 9 Upul Chandana, 10 Muttiah Muralitharan, 11 Pramodya Wickramasinghe
Pitch and conditions
It’s anticipated to be hard, hot and dry at the Adelaide Oval tomorrow. Temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, and a fast and flat surface in prospect. The pitch has some cracks, and a few patches of live grass but overall it promises to be a Les Burdett special. True, and full of runs.
Roshan Mahanama needs another 52 runs to reach 5,000 in ODIs
Chaminda Vaas is set to play in his 100th ODI, and Darren Gough in his 50th
Sanath Jayasuriya needs one more wicket to reach 150 in ODIs, but his team-mate Muttiah Muralitharan could yet get there first, he’s on 146
“It was brilliant playing in front of such a huge crowd, but a few people threatened to ruin it and I had to think of the safety of the players. When the beer bottle came on it had gone too far but we won’t be taking the matter any further. Shane kept the golf balls but we got hold of the beer bottle so we can claim the refund.””
Alec Stewart reacts to crowd trouble during England’s match against Australia at Melbourne, where Shane Warne donned Steve Waugh’s helmet to help calm the situation.