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Cook’s work of art as England seal historic series win

Alastair Coook, battling to prove he belongs in the one-day arena, inched England painstakingly to a rare sub-continental triumph yesterday when he ensured they could again win ugly in the most trying of conditions.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder then England will look back on this understated but hugely creditable venture as a work of art.

England celebrate Upul Tharanga

England bowler Ryan Sidebottom, right, celebrates the dismissal of Sri Lankan batsman Upul Tharanga

Their third straight victory over Sri Lanka, the last two after losing crucial tosses, surpasses as an achievement even their unlikely win in Australia in February.

They came into this series fearing heavy defeat that would see them slip to eighth in the rankings but now have their sights on fourth.

What are we to make of England’s one-day cricket this year? They upset all the odds to banish Australia on their own patch, then they endured a ‘back to basics’ World Cup which served only to see them back at the bottom of the pile.

A defeat against the lowly West Indies in Paul Collingwood’s first series in charge was followed by a fantastic 4-3 triumph over India and then another hapless display, this time in the World Twenty20.

Now they have emerged victorious in one of the toughest of all environments against the World Cup finalists after going 1-0 down and looking out of their depth in the Dambulla opener.

The only certainty is never to be certain about what England will do next.

At the centre of yesterday’s fivewicket win, which clinched the series with a game to play, was a man whose place was again in jeopardy.

There is no question Cook will be a fixture of England’s Test side for many a year but what is less sure is that he can adapt to prosper in the limited-overs game.

He came into yesterday’s match with just 56 runs from his last five innings and only the memory of his maiden century at the Rose Bowl, in the opening match of the India series, to sustain the belief he can become the anchor man around whom England can build a total.

This was the most compelling evidence yet that he must be left alone in one-dayers to continue his advanced cricketing education.

In truth, Cook had no need to rush after England, with Colombo providing typically steamy Sri Lankan conditions, had restricted their hosts to 211 for nine on another low, slow excuse for a pitch.

Yet the temperament which sets Cook apart was to the fore as he refused to get frustrated by his initial failure to penetrate the field, before slowly unfurling some classical drives and more familiar nudges off his legs to see England home with 19 balls to spare.

At Cook’s side was a man whose game is just not suited to surfaces that will surely kill 50-over cricket even more rapidly than the advance of Twenty20.

Kevin Pietersen’s booming frontfoot drives were rendered virtually ineffectual on the Dambulla dung heap in the first three matches and this comatose Colombo strip would have done nothing to whet the appetite of a player who has been on the road with England for 19 non-stop months.

Perhaps Pietersen was buoyed by news yesterday that he may finally have found an ally at Lord’s in his plea for less cricket in an overcrowded international calendar.

Hugh Morris, the new managing director of the England team, arrived in Sri Lanka to announce he would be sympathetic to resting top players from series to try to prevent burn-out. It would have been music to Pietersen’s ears.

Kumar Sangakkara

Kumar Sangakkara held the innings together for the Sri Lankans

While fluency was still close to impossible, Pietersen knuckled down to join his young colleague in a partnership of 110 which clinched the series for England after cameos from Phil Mustard and Ian Bell.

‘Colonel’ Mustard is even less suited to batting in Sri Lanka than Pietersen, but the four fours he spanked here after another tidy display behind the stumps showed he is emerging as a real limitedovers rival to Matt Prior.

Cook was aghast to fall within sight of the winning post, chopping on Dilhara Fernando for 80 from 123 balls while attempting to cut.

Collingwood departed first ball but Pietersen remained unbeaten on 63, even managing to smash the flat leg- spin of Kaushal Lokuarachchi for a straight six to reach his 17th one-day international half-century.

Only a stand of 126 between Kumar Sangakkara and Chamara Silva enabled a subdued Sri Lanka to get anywhere close to par after England had again produced an impressive new-ball performance.

Ryan Sidebottom was the epitome of the ideal opening bowler and Stuart Broad took wickets again, but this time the star was a man who has blossomed this year like few other Englishmen.

Jimmy Anderson had not taken a wicket in the opening three matches, but here he got three, including the prize scalp of captain Mahela Jayawardene.

The Bradford & Bingley Trophy — can there have ever been more unlikely sponsors of a sub-continental series? — does not have quite the same ring as the Ashes and it is hard to take seriously a trophy which depicts a silver bowler hat on top of a stick.

But no matter.

The entertainment value may have been desperately low, yet England have scrapped to an extremely worthy achievement here, having the chance to wrap up the series 4-1 on Saturday. And that would be extraordinary.

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