Muttiah Muralitharan picked up 11 wickets in Trent Bridge with eight of those wickets coming in the second innings as Sri Lanka squared the three Test series winning the last game.

Mahela Jayawardene with his Man of the Match award after the Lord’s Test.

 by Rex Clementine

When one reminisces Sri Lanka’s cricket tours to England, the 1998 tour stands out. On that occasion, the tourists recorded their maiden Test win after winning the Emirates tri-nation tournament that involved the hosts and South Africa. But equally productive was the tour of 2006. On that occasion, the Sri Lankans squared the three match Test series before thrashing England 5-0 in the ODIs that followed.

There wasn’t much optimism when the Sri Lankans landed in London in May 2006 as they were taking on an England side that had regained the Ashes the previous summer after many years in the doldrums.

The British tabloids lay into England
The Sri Lankans played four warm-up games before taking on England and despite a six wicket win over Derbyshire, they had struggled to cope with conditions. They were bowled out for 179 chasing 196 in a 50 over match against Sir Paul Getty’s XI while England ‘A’ beat them by ten wickets in a three day game. Another three day game against British Universities ended in a draw.

Few expected the Sri Lankans to match a strong England outfit and true to predictions the hosts piled up a mammoth 551 for six declared in the first Test at Lord’s and in reply Sri Lanka were bowled out for 192 to concede a 359 run lead with two full days and two sessions left in the game.

Only one result looked possible at that stage and the Sri Lankans attracted heavy criticism. Former great Geoff Boycott questioned the sense in giving Sri Lanka three Tests while other television pundits called the tourists a team of ‘schoolboys’.

But what happened after lunch on day three was quite remarkable as the Sri Lankans put up one of the finest rearguard actions seen in the history of the game.

Mahela Jayawardene, the captain led from the front. His second innings knock was pure class and embarrassed the likes of Boycott. Precise footwork, sound technique in playing fast bowling and the ability to pounce on the loose balls won the Sri Lankan captain many accolades as he recorded his second century at the Home of Cricket.

But all the good work was spoilt just after Sri Lanka avoided the follow on. With 30 minutes to go for stumps on the penultimate day, Jayawardene was caught down the leg-side off the bowling of Andrew Flintoff. With one full day left and Sri Lanka’s premier batsman gone, the hosts were smelling victory as Sri Lanka ended the day on 381 for six. They only had a lead of 22 with four wickets left and still the mood was that this could be all over in the first session on day five.

It helped that Sri Lanka were playing seven specialists batsmen and others like Farveez Maharoof, Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Kulasekara could bat. And bat they did for one full day at the game’s greatest theater.

Maharoof, Tillekeratne Dilshan, Vaas and Kulasekara all posted half-centuries to take Sri Lanka out of danger.

Dilshan and Maharoof players known for their attacking instincts came up with disciplined knocks to help Sri Lanka get out of jail. But the best effort on the last day was from pace spearhead Chaminda Vaas, who remained unbeaten on 50 when the stumps were drawn. His unfinished vigil lasted for four hours and 15 minutes.

The ninth wicket partnership between Vaas and Kulasekara was worth 105 runs, a Sri Lankan record at that time against any country. While Vaas was solid in defense Kulasekara attacked the loose balls and ended with 64 with seven fours and two sixes, both slog sweeps over mid-wicket off Monty Panesar.

As the tourists battled it out for a draw, Sri Lankan fans flocked to witness the closing stages of the game and celebrated the draw as if a win. Mahela was named Man of the Match.

The second Test at Birmingham was hit by rain and dominated by fast bowlers as the Sri Lankans suffred a six wicket loss. But when the sun was out in Nottingham, the tourists came up with a super display to record only their second Test win in England.

Muttiah Muralitharan in his last Test Match in England walked away as a champion. England were set a target of 325 to win the series and Murali reduced them to 190 picking up eight for 70. He had a match bag of 11 for 132.

The Sri Lankans won the one off T-20 International at Rose Bowl.

The first two ODIs were played in London and the tourists won comfortably again. Upul Tharanga, then aged 21 made a century at Lord’s while Sanath Jayasuriya hammered a whirlwind hundred at The Oval as Sri Lanka went to Chester-le-Street with a 2-0 lead.

The only drawback was the team losing Muralitharan who returned home after his son fell ill.

Despite the setback, the series was sealed in Chester-le-Street as Sri Lanka won by eight wickets thanks to Mahela Jayawardene century.

At Old Trafford, Sri Lanka posted 318 with Jayawardene posting another century and England were bowled out for 285.

With a 4-0 lead, the Sri Lankans were focused on a clean sweep. It was achieved in Headingly, once a fortress of English cricket, in fine style.

Sri Lanka had won the four ODIs batting first and England thought to change the pattern. So after winning the toss, they batted first. A total of 321 meant that England were certain of avoiding a whitewash, but that was far from reality.

This was unpredictable Sri Lanka. Sanath Jayasuriya smashed 152 off 99 balls with 20 fours and four sixes while Upul Tharanga hit 109 as they added 286 runs for the first wicket, a World Record.

Sri Lanka not only chased 322, but they chased it with more than 12 overs to spare to win in grand style to put English cricket on low ebb.

In every sense that day was a dismal one for English sport. Earlier that day, England and Yorkshire legend Fred Trueman lost his battle with lung cancer. The same day English football team had been knocked out of FIFA World Cup quarter-finals by Portugal on a penalty shootout.

A senior Sri Lankan journalist covering the tour summed up the situation saying, "English bowlers can’t bowl strait and their footballers can’t shoot straight."

Jayasuriya was chosen as Player of the Series as he had accumulated 322 runs at an average of 65. Into the bargain, his left-arm spin had brought him five wickets in the series. Jayawardene and Tharanga were equally efficient. Tharanga was solid as an opener having piled up two centuries and a half-centruy

Mahela Jayawardene’s innovative captaincy played a key role in his team’s success. The Sri Lankan skipper took the fight onto the opposition from ball one and his moves looked inspirational. He was in excellent form with the bat too having scored two centuries and a fifty.

Tom Moody, the coach brought in a new dimension to the Sri Lankan outfit. His coaching methods and placing a high premium on the discipline of fielding brought the tourists rich dividends.

Having been involved in English county cricket for several seasons as Cricket Director at Worcestershire, Moody was able to feed the Sri Lankans with lot of information on English conditions and the opponents.

The Sri Lankans finished off the tour on a high note and that remains one of the most successful overseas tours by the national cricket team. Sri Lanka lost just one international game, won seven and drew one.

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