It was supposed to be a consolation victory coming at the end of a demoralising summer for England in 1984. A single crumb of comfort to digest before David Gower's physically and mentally damaged team departed for a tour of India in the winter. Yet the famine stretched on. The one-off Test against Sri Lanka at Lord's ended up leaving more questions than answers.
As the dust settled on England's final Test defeat against the rampant West Indians, many called for change after the 5-0 "blackwash" had been completed. Mike Gatting, in fine county form once more, was seen as an ideal replacement for Chris Tavare, and with Ian Botham ruling himself out of the Indian tour, most saw this as an opportunity to rest the all-rounder and experiment a little.
To their credit, the England selectors gave the same men that had played at the Oval a chance to redeem themselves, Chairman of Selectors Peter May ruling out rotation. It was a rare moment of consistency during a decade of a rotating door policy selection.
May spoke from bitter experience about resting players; in 1954 England gave Alec Bedser a break for the final Test of the series against Pakistan, and the subsequent defeat left a lot of egg on English faces. To be honest, May was as desperate for an English Test victory as the supporters, thus he felt fully justified in not rocking an already wobbly boat. "The first essential is to win a match and set things up for the winter," May revealed. "And that means playing our best side."
Described as "the amateurs from Sri Lanka" by the Daily Mirror's Peter Laker, the visitors had only been playing Test cricket since 1982, and had not recorded a victory in their opening eleven Tests, so maybe it was understandable for English fans to see hope on the horizon. Yet just had the English media had underestimated Denmark after the draw for the Euro 84 qualifying group, it soon became apparent that there was misplaced confidence with regards to the Sri Lankans. The tourists may not have won any matches against the English counties, but dig a bit deeper and the signs were there that they would give England a real test at Lord's.
Opener Sidath Wettimuny scored a century against Gloucestershire, Arjuna Ranatunga did the same at Kent, with Amal Silva, Ranjan Madugalle, and Duleep Mendis all giving a clear indication of their abilities with the bat before Sri Lanka's first Test at Lord's. On the bowling front, Vinothen John had taken 22 wickets on tour, including 5/89 against Surrey, 6/58 at Gloucester, and 5/50 at Canterbury, with Ashantha de Mel providing able support. Somachandra de Silva, Sri Lanka's only full-time professional, took 5/39 to assist John in making Kent follow-on, the 40-year-old hopeful that he could pose a threat with his leg-spin, as long as Sri Lanka could get enough runs on the board.
De Silva got his wish, thanks largely to a generous decision by David Gower and some woeful bowling from England. On a slow and even pitch, Wettimuny excelled on the opening day, after Gower had won the toss and inserted Sri Lanka. At 43/2 the early signs were good for Gower, yet as the day progressed the England captain must have wondered what he had done, his bowling attack unable to provide him any control. Wettimuny, who had visited the Lord's shop prior to his innings to get his old bat repaired, tucked in, cover-driving and square-cutting the cafeteria style bowling on show.
"I'll remember this day forever," Wettimuny stated, on a day that he ended on 116 not out, cramping up as the close of play neared. "It's pleasing to show the cricketing world that Sri Lankans can play long Test innings." The jeweller had played a gem of a knock - the Daily Mirror's words, not mine - ably supported by Roy Dias (32) and Ranatunga (54 not out), and with Sri Lanka closing on 226/3, there was a lot of criticism coming the way of the England team.
There was even more to come after day two. "Shaky England finally reached rock-bottom," wrote Laker in the Daily Mirror, adding that this was England's "worst-ever summer" (there would be plenty of competition for that award in years to come). Sri Lanka simply clobbered England's seam attack of Botham, Jonathan Agnew, Paul Allott, and Richard Ellison with Gower inexplicably waiting until 3.30 to give spinner Pat Pocock - his most economical bowler - a chance to calm things down. Ranatunga scored a fine 84, taking Sri Lanka to 292/4, yet this only brought skipper Mendis to the crease, and that is when the mayhem truly commenced.
Mendis took to Botham, taking 26 from three overs, and prompting Gower to have words with his star man, apparently telling him to pitch the ball up a bit, rather than finding the middle of the pitch and Mendis' bat. In all, Mendis would strike ten fours, and three sixes (all off Botham's bowling) on his way to an unbeaten century scored from just 112 balls. When Botham was removed from the attack, many of the Sri Lankan fans chanted for Gower to bring him back on.
Through it all, Wettimuny remained, ending play on 187 as the visitors reached a stunning 434/4. "Shambles" blared the Daily Express headline. "I almost felt ashamed at Lord's," added the legendary Jim Laker. "But England's cricket plunged to levels too farcical for such caring feelings."
Wettimuny would finally be shifted on the Saturday, the opener reaching a then Sri Lankan Test match record of 190 in nearly eleven hours, but cameo knocks from debutant Aravinda de Silva, and de Mel allowed Mendis the luxury of declaring at 491/7. But if England supporters thought the suffering was over, then be afraid. Be very afraid. Chris Broad and Chris Tavare were about to begin their very own form of Chinese water torture.
In fairness, Broad and Tavare were hardly about to throw their wickets away, both men playing for their international futures and a possible spot on the tour to India. Still, that was little consolation to anyone unfortunate enough to be present at Lord's on that Saturday.
After Graeme Fowler departed for 25, Broad and Tavare dropped anchor, putting on 56 runs in 31 overs, with booing and jeering breaking out amongst those in the the 8,000 crowd who had managed to stay awake. Described as excruciatingly boring, of unprecedented indifference, and unattractive, the day did little to encourage and entertain, with Gower refreshingly honest in his appraisal.
"I sympathise with the crowd. It is not enjoyable playing like that, so it can't be enjoyable watching it," said England's skipper who ended the day on 16 not out. England had crawled to 139/2 from 61 overs - Tavare making 14 in 138 minutes - some achievement seeing that John, de Mel and de Silva were all carrying injuries.
The Bank Holiday crowd did at least see England avoid the embarrassment of following-on, even so, that looked doubtful at one point. Broad fell 14 runs short of his maiden century, and when Gower and Botham departed in quick succession, England were 218/5 and still 74 runs short of the follow-on mark.
Luckily for England there was one ray of light during the summer of '84. Allan Lamb continued his fine form - scoring a fourth Test hundred of the summer, the first England player to do this since Denis Compton in 1947 - putting on 87 runs with Ellison (41) to calm nerves. Without Lamb's 107, England would have been in serious danger of total shame.
With Pocock dismissed off the final ball on the Monday, England's total of 370 ensured that in all probability the Test would end as a draw. And so it would, although not before some more Sri Lankan glory on the final day. Wicket-keeper Amal Silva scored his maiden Test ton in his second match, yet this was overshadowed by another stunning Mendis innings. At 118/5, and with Botham finding some form, Sri Lanka were rocking slightly. But Mendis brushed the mini-crisis aside, crashing 94 runs from 97 deliveries, coming just six runs short of two centuries in the same Test at Lord's.
Botham's 6/90 did provide England with some hope on that final day, but with the all-rounder not available for India, there was a lot of despondency surrounding the future of the team at the time. "I refuse to accept that we have slipped to the bottom rung," a defensive Gower protested after the match, but not many agreed. "England left the field last night having played, until the end, the most abject cricket," wrote John Woodcock in The Times, and that was one of the kinder comments. It was hard to see a way out of this spiral of negativity.
The Sri Lankans definitely deserved all the plaudits coming their way. The batting of Wettimuny, Silva, Ranatunga, and Mendis had sparkled where England had dulled, the first innings lead gained at Lord's fully deserved, as the visitors easily had the best of the draw. The signs were there that maybe this team were steadily finding their feet in the international arena. When Sri Lanka won their first Test match in September 1985, on their way to a 1-0 series win over India, this improvement was plain for all to see.
Sri Lanka would not be the only team to celebrate an unexpected win over India in 1985. Somehow, Gower and his team got themselves off the canvas to win 2-1 in India, and during the next summer the Ashes were won in a vaguely unbelievable annus mirabilis. What a difference a year makes. Just twelve months earlier David Gower and his team had been roundly slaughtered after the limp performance against Sri Lanka. As England's captain stood on a balcony at the Oval with a replica urn in his hand, he must have wondered if 1984 was just a bad nightmare.