The month and scenery changed, but this Test was a familiar tale for England: A frustrating and avoidable defeat. This time was all the more galling (no pun intended) for coming against a demonstrably weaker side. When England collapsed against Pakistan they had the excuse that they were up against a very good bowling unit, not so in Galle. Herath took what may have been the luckiest Test 12-fer in history (though the last one was taken by Jason Krejza, so maybe not) as the batsmen repeatedly gifted him their wickets. Of the seven recognised batsmen (ie, Strauss – Patel), nine of the 14 wickets to fall in both innings were needless. Even granting Patel leniency on debut and accepting the inevitability of the occasional batsman error, one would still call six of the 12 wickets inexcusable. Of those, two were to misplayed sweeps shots and three were to needless charges down the wicket (and remember, I am not including Broad through Monty in that). It is fair to say that without those errors, England would have won. Herath is not a 12-fer bowler without a lot of help, and in this match he picked up three wickets from stupid shots, three tail-end wickets and the debutant twice. The other four were at least reasonable, but four wickets for a subcontinent spinner is nothing special. But that’s about right, because it wasn’t a special performance. He was not only outbowled bowled by Swann, but even Randiv was getting more bounce and turn. It’s fair to say that Herath was the third best spinner in the match, but England made him look like Shane Bloody Warne. It’s frustrating, annoying and the same thing they did in the UAE. They should have learnt and they did not.
The bowlers were once again very good, but they did not cover themselves in glory the way they did in the UAE. Jimmy Anderson’s five wicket haul in the first innings was excellent, starting as it did by reducing Sri Lanka to 11-2 and removing the very dangerous Sangakkara first ball. He also produced a pair of fantastic deliveries to finish the innings on the second day, though by then it was later than England would have liked. Graeme Swann certainly deserved more for his efforts. Six wickets in the second innings, including Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Samaraweera (cumulative average: 159.12) for only 55 between them. He had Sri Lanka 127-8 in the second innings and gave England a chance to win. He also batted in a cap in both innings. It’s a small thing, but it does not happen nearly often enough and it is very, very cool when it does. Between all that, I think it would have been fair to have given Swann MotM.
The bowling unit as a whole, however, was not quite incisive enough and Strauss had a bit of a shocker with the captaincy. The biggest problem for England was probably the selection, we played two seamers and three spinners. The notion was presumably that the seamers would not be effective on the slow surface, but Anderson and Broad put the lie to that in the first innings. Neither Monty nor Patel looked incisive, meantime, and all of their wickets were those of tail-enders. This lack of firepower cost England badly as the Sri Lankan tail added valuable, and ultimately match winning, runs in both innings. The second innings was the more frustrating. This time, Sri Lanka did not have an established batsman to guide the tail and yet the last two wickets put on 87 runs. England only lost by 75, so it is no exaggeration to say that those cost England the match. Strauss did not captain well in that time. To be fair to him, he was handicapped by only having two wicket taking options: Patel and Panesar looked unlikely to bowl anyone out and Broad was half fit. Strauss could not keep Swann and Jimmy on for the entire session and Sri Lanka profited. At the same time, however, he did not attack enough. England needed to wickets to have a great chance of winning, but he put men back and allowed easy singles. The notion was to get the ‘rabbit’ on strike, but this seldom seems to work and it did not come close to doing so here. This is not the first time England have changed tactics to tail-enders and I find it baffling every time. The original tactics had reduced the Sri Lanka to 127-8 and got some of the best batsmen in the world out cheaply. Why alter that to a number ten? In the first innings, Jimmy bowled Welegedara with an unplayable offcutter. The batsman had no chance. Why this was not the plan in the second innings is beyond me.
England could have, and should have, won this match. There is still some hope, but they must cut out the errors before the next Test. Having watched this side at their best we know this is possible, but one would think it would have already happened. I have already written about how England can improve their player selection, but the biggest problem is shot selection. As long as they are playing rash shots, like sweeps, they will struggle.