With the advent of the shorter forms of cricket such as the 50-over One Day Internationals and the even shorter 20 over Twenty20 format that almost certainly produce a definite outcome, there has been concern that the traditional five-day Test matches may not be able to match them for excitement. These fears were allayed by the two Test matches just completed between England and Sri Lanka. In both those matches, games that seemed to be drifting to foregone conclusions suddenly experienced dramatic reversals of fortune that led to nail-biting finishes where the outcomes were in doubt right up to the very end. These are the kinds of games that cricket aficionados remember for decades and to have them back-to-back was highly unusual.
I discussed the first Test earlier, a game that on the last day seemed headed for a boring draw (cricketese for a no-decision), as the Sri Lankan batsmen played to run out the clock because they faced an impossible target to win. But in the late afternoon, fortunes suddenly changed as there was a collapse in the batting and it looked like England was heading for a win. In the end, the Sri Lankans were able to just barely hold on, with their last wicket not falling, although they almost lost it on the penultimate ball of the day.
The second Test that ended last Monday saw even more dramatic reversals of fortune. Sri Lanka batted first and had a mediocre score of just 257. England responded with 365 and when Sri Lanka batted again, at one stage in the late morning of the fourth day, they had scored 277 for the loss of 7 wickets, a lead of just 169 with almost all their best batsmen out. It seemed likely that they would soon be all out, leaving England an easy target of about 200 with plenty of time left. But then Sri Lanka made a dramatic recovery led by their captain, and ended up scoring 457, leaving England with a harder target of 350 to win. England still had plenty of time to get the runs but they had to bat for about an hour at the end of the fourth day and this is always a difficult time for a team to begin an innings. Sri Lanka’s bowlers struck quickly and hard and England ended the fourth day reeling at 57 for the loss of 5 wickets.
So Sri Lanka began the last day looking to wrap up a win quickly but the England batsmen, like the Sri Lankans, put up a tremendous fight and batted through the entire day and seemed on the verge of pulling off a dramatic draw, the way Sri Lanka had done in the first Test. But their last batsman got out on the penultimate ball of the day and Sri Lanka grabbed the win. Newcomer Moeen Ali batted for England with grace and style throughout the entire day to score 108 but his great effort could not save his side from what must be a heartbreaking loss.
This again raises the issue of why the England captain did not declare his innings closed near the end of the fourth day in the first Test but instead batted till close of play. This not only prevented England from exploiting the tiredness of the Sri Lankan team and getting a few wickets like Sri Lanka did in the second test, it also gave them less time to get them out.
This was the first time that the Sri Lankans had won a Test series in England and there was much jubilation that they achieved it because, as this article describes, they are a team that is under-resourced and under-prepared, with many of their players having to work regular jobs between cricket, and the Sri Lankan cricket administration is corrupt and inefficient and subject to heavy government meddling. That they have done so well despite the behind-the-scenes mess speaks volumes for the commitment and dedication of the players.