Seldom can England have been so unsatisfied after a nine-wicket victory as they were after finally disposing of Sri Lanka in the final session of day four in the second Investec Test.
For their dressing-room celebrations they had Alastair Cook to toast as the first England batsman to reach 10,000 Test runs, and James Anderson’s needle-sharp bowling that made him the man of the match, and a promising innings by Alex Hales, and the fine century by Moeen Ali… but not much else.
Cook was bound to achieve his landmark with a shovel through midwicket, and this was one of his most felicitous examples, a well-timed clip. He went on to set a record for the most runs by an England captain and, having removed those twin weights from his shoulders, looked as though he was ready to pick up where he had left off in Abu Dhabi, where he had extended his last Test century to 263.
But the rest of the fourth day was frustration for England and a further exposure of their limitations. Straight after the match the same squad of 12 was confirmed for the third Test at Lord’s, but the Sri Lankan dressing room may have contained more players who felt content.
The pitch never seemed flat when Anderson was bowling, or Stuart Broad to a lesser extent, but it did when Steven Finn, Chris Woakes and Moeen Ali were bowling in Sri Lanka’s second innings. Their combined figures of three wickets for 200 runs after day three were worsened to four wickets for 317, and that fourth wicket came from a more rustic tail-end slog than most village greens now see.
Finn, having been unselectable on the last tour of Australia, became unbowlable after an over which cost 15. Rangana Herath, who in his long and distinguished career had scored one Test fifty, smoothly struck 11 off four balls from Finn and that was enough for Cook to take pity. While England became anxious as the prospect of an innings victory and of an early getaway on the motorway evaporated, Cook gave the man who was his fastest bowler three overs out of 44.2 on day four.
Woakes had come into this match in the form of his life after taking nine wickets in an innings for Warwickshire, and picked up three in Sri Lanka’s first innings, but form it proved to be with all its transience. As the pitch eased in the tourists’ second innings, just as in South Africa, Woakes had neither the Anderson-like penetration nor the sustained accuracy which forces a batsman into mistakes, as the poor lad himself appeared to realise.
Without Finn, Cook over-bowled Moeen, giving him an 11-over spell either side of lunch. As Herath had demonstrated and he is the canniest left-arm spinner in Test cricket today bowling spin on a slow pitch in May is an almost thankless and wicketless task, but Moeen could have done more to contain.
Why an extra cover, instead of leaving the position vacant to tempt the off drive and bowl the righthander through the gate? Bringing every man up, including deep midwicket to save a single after Dinesh Chandimal had passed his century and was gagging to play his slog-sweep When Saqlain Mushtaq trials as a consultant coach during the Old Trafford Test, he has plenty to teach Moeen, and Cook, about field-placing.
Also, Chandimal was dropped when 69 off as straightforward a chance as an inside edge off Anderson could be. Following on from Jonny Bairstow’s missed stumping when Angelo Mathews was 36, the axiom was revived about “it is not about how many catches you drop as who your drop”. Missing Sri Lanka’s captain and vice-captain deprived England of an innings victory and a lot of -momentum.
Self-doubt then insidiously entered Bairstow’s game as several more balls went astray. The question about whether Bairstow should play as a specialist batsman at No 5, and Jos Buttler brought back as keeper at seven, was not put to bed.
England overall could be accused of yet again lacking the ruthlessness to finish off smaller fish, but it would be fairer to blame the inadequate bowling and the wicketkeeping that fell from the heights which Bairstow had set in the first half of this series.
Anderson would have had his 450th Test wicket if Bairstow had caught Chandimal, or if James Vince had tried to catch a skier offered by Herath with his hands above his head and fingers up Australian-style. With commendable patience considering, Anderson waited until he pinned Herath after a stand of 116.
His 21st five-wicket haul followed when Anderson demolished the stumps of Shaminda Eranga. Gone after the tour of South Africa? Lost his nip? Or has Anderson ever bowled better in an early-season -series in England?
England now have eight points in the Super-Series which has been devised to give a veneer of meaningfulness to this tour. Sri Lanka are stuck on “nul point” but they will be heartened by their second innings and realise plenty of runs can be scored when Anderson is not dissecting their defences. They could even force a draw if Lord’s is as flat as it was for the two Tests last summer and England do not sharpen their attack.