England v Sri Lanka: Three talking points
England v Sri Lanka: Three talking points as the tourists move into a commanding position on day four
Lord Angelo is severe
When the autopsy begins on this suddenly all too harrowing mini-series, alongside the multiple self-inflicted wounds attributable to poor shot selection, questionable bowling lengths and fielding errors which will pockmark the mangled corpse of this new England will sit a knife driven through its heart by Angelo Mathews. England were cruising along nicely at 191-1 in their first innings in this Test when the Sri Lankan skipper found a bit of nip to winkle out Gary Ballance on his way to Test best figures of 4-44, and having come in on Sunday afternoon with his side effectively 68-4 and the game in the balance, he first saw them through to the close before, on day four, opening out into a glorious innings of 160 (his highest Test score, to sit alongside that bowling return) which left England’s attack, well before the end, looking ragged and toothless. It was a lesson in controlled aggression and in marshalling the lower order (if England’s front line bowlers looked to have the stronger batting credentials, they have been brutally outplayed in that regard here), and has established him amongst the top rank of international all-rounders. When the inquest begins for England, though, it should be noted that Mathews’s innings also illustrated the flaw in adopting all out defence to a batsman looking to shepherd the tail. Momentum and confidence are precious commodities in sport, and such a strategy as this often runs the risk of frittering both away.
When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions
Say what you like about Alastair Cook – many have, and many will – but right now, it is difficult not to feel sorry for him. As has been previously touched on in this column, he is in desperately poor nick with the bat, and his dismissal on Monday evening, just as the faintest glimmers of hope had started to emerge above the horizon for England, was just another example of that, the wrong shot to the wrong ball leaving him with the rest of the innings to ponder what should have been. But he was one wicket away from victory at Lord’s, and at 278-2 in the first innings here, with his team in the lead and wholly in the ascendancy, his captaincy job was looking a whole lot easier. And, for that matter, more secure. While the Ashes winter took its toll on much within ‘Team England’ – and Cook himself was far from immune to brickbats – there were few serious suggestions that he was not the man to lead the team forward. How life can change between Saturday and Monday. Suddenly, the talk is less a question of whether there are any real candidates to replace him than whether he can realistically survive. There is little doubt that he will rediscover his batting touch. The issue has starkly become whether he can do so while he remains in charge.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Part of the great beauty of sport is that there is always tomorrow. Of course, as far as England are concerned, this game is lost. The overwhelming probability, unless the clouds burst over Leeds overnight and for much of Tuesday, is that Sri Lanka will have wrapped up victory by the early afternoon, to take home their first ever series win in England. But until that final wicket falls, Joe Root and Moeen Ali must graft and fight. Matt Prior, Stuart Broad and Chris Jordan must knuckle down and scrap, and James Anderson must take the blows and bare his chest for more [it’s a metaphor, easy there at the back]. This was meant to be a brave new era for English cricket after the humiliation of the winter, and it must start now. No minor triumph which can be gleaned on the final day of this series, however small, should be dismissed; and for those who doubt this, cast your minds back to another Headingley occasion, five years ago. England went into the Fourth Ashes Test in 2009 1-0 up, but with momentum turning to the visitors, and when they were skittled for 102 and conceded a lead of nigh on 350 runs on first innings before falling to 82-5 overnight on day two, the game was conclusively up. But Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann took Australia’s attack apart in a rollicking 108 run partnership from 79 balls, and even in defeat, England had something to take on to what would be a famous victory at the Oval. This series will end in defeat; but England must continue to look to their tomorrows.