If ever an individual defined a team, that man was Muttiah Muralitharan. And if ever anyone doubted the timeless verity about bowlers holding the key to victory, they need look no further than Sri Lanka for incontrovertible evidence.
With their wristy spin maestro on call, Sri Lanka were a force to be reckoned with, capable of lifting World Cups (they reached three finals, winning one) and among the most resolute on home soil (15 Test series won, six lost and only 14 matches out of 73 lost).
Then, in July 2010, came ecstasy cloaked in agony as international cricket’s most prolific pie-chucker nailed his 800th Test victim with his final delivery.
The decline, unsurprisingly, has been precipitous. In their first 15 Tests without Murali, the Lankans drew a painful blank: lost five, drew ten.
Last September, Michael Clarke’s maiden tour as Australia’s Test captain brought victory in Galle and an untroubled series success. Then, shortly before Christmas, Tillakaratne Dilshan’s men went to South Africa. The first Test, at Centurion, was over inside eight sessions, Graeme Smith’s powerful if erratic outfit bullying their way to victory by an innings and plenty.
Then, to widespread astonishment, came a chink of light. Dilshan and Co amazed one and all in taking the second Test by a thumping 208 runs. Mahela Jayawardene hailed it as his country’s most significant triumph since Murali’s Match at The Oval in 1998, when the Tamil Tormentor’s 16 wickets gave Sri Lanka their first Test win in England.
Even more encouragingly, that Durban victory owed most to nine wickets by Murali’s endlessly patient successor, Rangana Herath.
The first week of 2012, however, found them plummeting back to earth with a thud, the final Test in Cape Town bringing a ten-wicket drubbing after South Africa had stacked up 580-4 at more than four runs an over, Herath one for plenty.
When the one-day series was lost and Dilshan resigned as captain, back through the revolving door and into the scalding seat came the reluctant Jayawardene.
Yet tempted as they may be to anticipate only their second series victory in Sri Lanka (victorious at the first time of asking in 2001, they lost in 2003 and 2007), England will not take their hosts lightly, not least given how their vulnerability against the turning ball on low, slow pitches was so ruthlessly exposed in the Gulf against Pakistan in January. In Colombo and Galle, too, spin is king.
What is unarguable is that the two Andrews, Strauss and Flower, now face the stiffest task of their fruitful reign: home series against South Africa and the renascent West Indies sandwiched by six Tests in Asia, four of them in India at the end of the year.
With some of the game’s wiliest spinners to combat (and in Devendra Bishoo, the ICC’s Emerging Player of 2011, and Imran Tahir, a Pakistani émigré, even West Indies and South Africa boast tantalising twirlymen), the trial will be by stealth as much as fire.
For batsmen accustomed to filling their boots on bouncier pitches, these Asian examinations promise to be the most searching.
For all that that Pakistan series brought scant respite in his vain groping for form, Strauss himself has scored more sub-continental Test hundreds than any active Englishman (three, all in India), plus that marvellous ODI career-best 158 in last year’s breathless World Cup tie at Bangalore). Alastair Cook (two) and Kevin Pietersen (one) are the only other centurions likely to face Sri Lanka.
The lone plusses of that trip to the Gulf were Monty Panesar and Stuart Broad. Recalled after 18 months, the former collected seven scalps in Abu Dhabi, including 6-62 in the second innings – the second-best of his Test career and better than Swann’s best.
That Swann continued to take wickets despite being comparatively off-colour testified to both skill and heart, but there were worrying hints that the devil that underpinned his march to the summit of the post-Muralitharan spin rankings has deserted him.
Notwithstanding the brainless drive that cost him his wicket in Abu Dhabi, Broad is emerging as the man around whom possibility swirls. Having forced his way back from the brink after a poor series against Sri Lanka last summer, by the simple expedient of bowling a fuller length and using the bouncer to shock rather than bully, he has acquired the handy habit of menacing the stumps.
Up to the end of that Abu Dhabi encounter he had taken 33 wickets in his last six Tests, of which more than 42 per cent – nine bowled, five lbw – were claimed by the routes that most consistently reward accuracy: an improvement of more than 30 per cent compared with his first 37 appearances.
As that rousing first-innings counter-attack in Abu Dhabi emphasised, moreover, Broad is a resourceful and dangerous batsman, capable of transforming mood and momentum.
In his first 16 innings after the start of that 2010 Lord’s encounter with Pakistan (the one that kicked off the spot-fixing scandal), where he made 169 and shared a Test-record eighth-wicket stand of 313 with Jonathan Trott, he has passed 40 seven times.
Not since Andrew Flintoff’s brief pomp ended six years ago have England boasted such a double-barrelled match-winner.
Ironically, what marked Broad’s tour of duty in the Gulf was his aggression: amid the build-up to a series many feared would turn fractious, he had suggested that he and his confreres ought to leave theirs at home – along, of course, with their fury over the spot-fixing.
Unfortunately, most appeared to do his bidding and turned meek instead of the other cheek. The difference, now that he is divesting himself of the privileges of youth – namely irresponsibility and the conviction that talent alone will suffice – is that Broad’s own aggression, so intrinsic to his effectiveness, has increasingly been underpinned by emotional control.
Ultimately, though, the outcome in Sri Lanka will almost certainly revolve around the capacity of England’s top order to forget.
Forget the ease with which Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman bewitched, bothered and bewildered them. Forget that lemming-like descent, when chasing 145 in Abu Dhabi, to 72 all out, their worst total away to Asian opposition.
Forget, above all, the statuesque timidity that squandered the initiative. Or, rather, remember, shudder – and do something about it.
This article was written by Rob Steen for Close Up, the world’s best informed sports and betting magazine. Click here to get a FREE version of Close Up for your iPAD.