Graham Thorpe made 32 not out in the second innings

Graham Thorpe on his Colombo hundred: "It was probably one of the top three knocks I played for England"

© Getty Images

I Was There

Thorpey and Gilo mug Sri Lanka

Fresh off an inspiring win in Pakistan, England headed to Sri Lanka in 2001, and proceeded to pull off an epic upset

Interviews by Scott Oliver  |  

February 2001: England arrived in Sri Lanka for the second leg of their winter tour buoyed by a dramatic 1-0 series win in Pakistan, secured in the last dregs of sunlight in Karachi. The Sri Lankans, meanwhile, were returning from a 2-0 loss in South Africa, happy to be back on familiar soil.

Russel Arnold, Sri Lanka allrounder: We had the spin attack. Chaminda Vaas was suited to our conditions, and with our batting as well, we knew we had the team to win. It was never really about the opposition. It was more what we can do.

Graham Thorpe, England top-order batsman: Winning in Pakistan undoubtedly gave us a lot of confidence, even if we knew that the pitches in Sri Lanka would really turn, whereas in Pakistan they were very flat. So it gave us some belief, but I'm not sure we ever felt like we were going to run all over them.

If England were to succeed, they would need to find a way to cope with Muttiah Muralitharan.

Ashley Giles, England left-arm spinner: One of [coach Duncan] Fletcher's great strengths was, he was very specific about his training. If we're going to face a lot of spin, then let's make the practice conditions realistic - even if that meant roughing up the wickets to make them spin more and throwing offspinners into the pitch hard. There aren't many better technical coaches out there than Fletch, and his knowledge of playing spin was well received by everyone.

Robert Croft, England offspinner: Fletch had a very proactive attitude to playing spin. He wasn't one who liked seeing his batsmen die in the hole. He liked them to have options, to back themselves, and give a bowler like Murali something to think about.

"I think the bad decisions and bad blood helped us. We had fairly strong characters who liked the fight, the likes of Thorpe and Gough, myself included, we enjoyed the battle" Nasser Hussain

Thorpe: You had to have clear options: what you were going to kick, what you were going to play, what were going to be your attacking options, were you going to sweep, slog-sweep. A lot of thought went into playing against him.

Nasser Hussain, England captain: We knew from people who'd done well against Murali - the likes of Andy Flower, Brian Lara and Stephen Fleming - that the left-handers were the key. Thorpe and [Marcus] Trescothick were major players for us.

Trescothick duly made 122 and 57 in the opening Test, in Galle, but he couldn't prevent a drubbing as a double-hundred by Marvan Atapattu and eight wickets for Sanath Jayasuriya saw England go down by an innings and 28 runs. For all England's preparation, Murali's match figures were an asphyxiating 97-28-145-7. They needed to quickly regroup.

Thorpe: After Galle, I think we realised we were going to have to do something a bit different, to be more positive. I remember Fletcher saying we had to spread the field a little bit if we can. We parked the idea of just holding an end and playing time, which had worked well in Pakistan. Going into Kandy, we realised we were going to have to play smarter, get that balance right between attack and defence.

The pitch suited us a little bit more in Kandy, too. It went through a bit more for our seamers, so they were able to strike with the new ball, which helped.

Hussain: After Pakistan we had such a good team spirit, so we all went back to the Lighthouse Hotel [in Galle] and sat round the pool till late, discussing where we could improve. We realised that our seamers had a role to play, the likes of [Darren] Gough and [Andy] Caddick. Craig White as well, especially if we got the ball reversing.


Giles: "An Achilles problem affected my rhythm, but then in the first innings at Colombo, I just clicked and found something again" © Getty Images

Arnold: Kandy plays a lot different to Galle or Colombo, and that was expected. We weren't disappointed it helped their seamers but we were disappointed with how the game went: England were good, but we felt we were harshly done by in terms of umpiring decisions.

England's seamers shared all ten Sri Lankan first-innings wickets, at which point it became vital for the visitors to achieve parity, at the very least. Step forward Hussain, who made his first century for 15 months, albeit with a helping hand from the umpires - particularly BC Cooray, the local official - as the tetchiness from Galle, where four Sri Lankans were docked 25% of their fees for excessive appealing, threatened to boil over.

Thorpe: There was an incident in Galle where Athers [Mike Atherton] was caught by [Kumar] Sangakkara behind the stumps, but on the bounce. I think that triggered a lot of the animosity, because he asked him afterwards if he'd caught it and he said he had, when it was clear that he didn't catch it cleanly.

Then Kandy was a bit of a debacle, really. Lots of umpiring decisions were wrong, player behaviour probably drifted as well because of that. There was lots of over-appealing and the teams got niggly towards each other. I took a catch in Kandy off Jayasuriya that had basically been whacked into the ground, but the playing conditions said they could only review whether I actually caught it cleanly.

Hussain: I think the bad decisions and bad blood helped us. We had fairly strong characters who liked the fight, the likes of Thorpe and Gough, myself included, we enjoyed the battle. I think it got them a bit rattled, to be honest, to see Jayasuriya throwing his helmet off halfway back to the pavilion. It was a diabolical decision, but this was pre-DRS. [Graeme] Hick was out caught and bowled, but that couldn't be given. I got away with a few in Kandy: three or four bat-pads on the off side weren't given. It was farcical at times, but then we got a few bad ones in Galle.

Arnold: I do recall catching Nasser at silly mid-off quite a few times in that game!

With a lead of 90, England then knocked over Atapattu, Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva with just three runs on the board, eventually dismissing the hosts for 250 before seeing home a ticklish chase of 161, seven down. Thorpe top-scored with 46, receiving stout support from Croft (17 off 89 balls) and White (21 not out from 74), and England headed to Colombo in good spirits.

"Thorpe was a batsman who was trusting his defence and just willing to let the bowlers keep coming, absorbing pressure, and accumulating runs, which is very, very unusual for overseas batsmen" Russel Arnold

Giles: I remember the coach journey down to Colombo from Kandy was electric. It had been a really tough game up there and we'd been delighted to get the result, but I think it was a case of: we're only going to do this if we apply the same amount of discipline again.

Arnold: The equation had now changed. Colombo was a final. England had shown some resilience. Things hadn't gone our way. We were up for it, but doubts really did creep in as the game went on.

Hussain: The wicket was a little bit underprepared and it looked like it would spin a little earlier in the game. It was never going to be a high-scoring affair. It was always going to be a reasonably tight, low-scoring game.

Thorpe: I remember it was pretty roasting hot. Losing the toss was a blow.

After a steady start, Sri Lanka's star-studded batting line-up contrived to collapse from 205 for 3 to 241 all out. Having been overlooked for the Pakistan tour, where England went with legspinner Ian Salisbury, Croft followed up his handy 3 for 40 in Kandy with figures of 32-9-56-4, while Giles, nursing figures of 1 for 239 from the first two Tests, also "came to the party", as his coach liked to say, with England executing their captain's philosophy of attrition to a tee.

Croft: If you look at subcontinent conditions, quite often legspinners can't get the pace on the ball that fingerspinners can. Quite often fingerspinners are more accurate than legspinners. So in a series where you need to get pace on it and are coming up against opposition that are very good at playing spin, the more control you can deliver, the more you're going to be an asset to the team.

Potentially, I was a "horses for courses" pick. But I knew from Glamorgan the principles Fletch went by - he was a guy who liked a settled squad - so it wouldn't have been an easy decision for him to have me back into the squad. I realised that there was an expectation on me to deliver.

Poor umpiring decisions plagued the series but also added to the drama

Poor umpiring decisions plagued the series but also added to the drama © PA Photos

Hussain: In Pakistan we had a tour where, by and large, we could just keep control, keep an eye on the run rate, and if you'd got control, then when it does start spinning or reversing, you're right in the game.

I was never one in the subcontinent to go searching for wickets. They tend to put the pressure on themselves. They are expected to win in that part of the world. Sri Lanka had gone 1-0 up, they'd got Murali - it was inconceivable they were going to lose a three-match series. My whole mindset was that once they see that they can lose, that's when they start to do some silly things. They started to run down the pitch and play big shots, when before that, in Galle, they just milked us. All right, the pitches had changed, but so had their mindset. That was just the fear of losing a series at home against England.

Arnold: Other than Galle, we were unable to get ourselves 300. Had we done that, the equation is so different. The series result was a lot more to do with the English bowling unit, I think, which was spot on. Wickets were shared. It was not only the spinners but the faster bowlers had come to terms with how to use the conditions, with cutters and slower balls. They realised that bowling it into the pitch can work in your favour.

England's reply was again about reaching parity, at least, but they slipped to 66 for 3, with Trescothick caught at short leg under freakish circumstances.

Arnold: The ball was hit so hard that I was just taking evasive action. Then I looked toward square leg and saw the fielder stop running because there was no ball. I actually didn't feel a thing, and then I realised it was in my shirt. I didn't feel it in my arm or in my ribs - it was totally in the cloth.

England finished day two well placed on 175 for 4, but a flurry of wickets for Vaas on a crazy third morning once more dragged the game back toward the knife edge. That England were still in the contest at all was down to the immovable Thorpe, who scored 113 not out. The next highest contribution was Michael Vaughan's 26.

"I took a catch in Kandy off Jayasuriya that had basically been whacked into the ground, but the playing conditions said they could only review whether I actually caught it cleanly" Graham Thorpe

Thorpe: I was in good nick, and that was the sort of situation I really enjoyed. Their score became like a target for us, especially as we were losing wickets.

Arnold: We always had a lot of respect for Graham Thorpe, a high-class batsman. He was extremely calm after the failures in Galle, and Kandy and Colombo were not easy pitches. But he was a batsman who was trusting his defence and just willing to let the bowlers keep coming, absorbing pressure, and accumulating runs, which is very, very unusual for overseas batsmen. A lot come out there looking for demons that don't exist. But Thorpe just played his own game without worrying what was happening around him. He was happy to play the line that the ball spun past [him] rather than panicking and trying to smother the ball.

Thorpe: It was probably one of the top three knocks I played for England in a Test, because of conditions, because of the position of the series, because it was Murali's backyard, because the match went the way it did. At the start of day three we'd have been thinking: "Maybe we can get a hundred lead. Possibly. Over 300, at least." But it didn't happen. The game just went into fast-forward.

Hussain: The pitches were good for a couple of days, then suddenly they would drop off a cliff. I'd always grown up on the Keith Fletcher mantra, where, especially on pitches like that, you only have to bowl a side out cheaply once to win. Just because a side gets a decent score in the first innings doesn't mean that's the end of the game.

England had managed a first-innings lead of just eight runs, boiling the series down to a one-innings shootout. Gough and Caddick promptly knocked over Sri Lanka's top three, but it was England's spinners who shone.

Giles: I'd struggled in the early part of the tour with an Achilles problem carried over from Pakistan, and I think that affected my rhythm. But then in the first innings at Colombo - take the wicket out of it - I just clicked and found something again. I bowled lots of overs, didn't go for many runs, picked up a couple of wickets, and felt that it was the best I'd bowled on the trip by far. Second time round, when the wicket did spin, I was ready to take that opportunity.

Murali ended the series fourth on the wickets table, with an average of 30.07 and a strike rate of 101.1

Murali ended the series fourth on the wickets table, with an average of 30.07 and a strike rate of 101.1 Rebecca Naden / © PA Photos

Hussain: I always felt that Murali would spin it on glass, so if you got a spinning pitch then it actually brought Giles, Croft or whoever into the game.

Croft: The spell Ashley bowled in that second innings at Colombo was the best he bowled in the series. He really found some rhythm. He had got that height and bounce. And he was really skilful at bowling quick, into the pitch, when it was offering him assistance.

Giles: Games often do accelerate in the subcontinent when the surface starts to go. Guys come in with people all round the bat and it's easy to panic. For me personally, to bowl in tandem with another spinner, so you get through your overs, keep putting pressure on, was fantastic.

Arnold: I don't think we underestimated Croft and Giles, but as a unit England were able to maintain pressure. Goughie and Caddick coming into the game was a plus for England. At certain stages, with certain types of bowlers, you have to be able to absorb pressure from them, but here there was no let-up because the English unit was good in their execution, especially considering the alien conditions. You can pick up wickets in Sri Lanka, but it's a different type of ball game in how you build pressure: the pace you bowl, the lengths, the lines. It's an adjustment. You don't come across pitches where just anyone can bowl and pick up wickets.

Astonishingly, Sri Lanka were routed for 81 in just 28.1 overs. Giles took 4 for 11 in the carnage, leaving England a chase of 74 that was not without a few tremors. Once again Thorpe's steadying influence was required.

Thorpe: When I came off after fielding, I felt really dehydrated. I'd spent a lot of time out in the middle. You just try and get as much fluid in as you can. I was going to slide down the order to No. 6 and was discussing it with Nasser, saying, "I'm feeling really dizzy, mate", but we quickly lost two wickets and Nasser said, "No, get out there."

My first ten balls - I think I had a bit of a flash at a few, I wasn't really focused. Literally. Then we lost another couple of wickets and I thought: "Crikey, this 70-odd we need looks a long way off." The pitch was turning square. It was hard to score, and I just thought: "I'm going to have to dig in here. Another 15 to 20 runs, get up to 60 and we'll be there". Thankfully, we never quite got to the point of dragging defeat from the jaws of victory.

"I think Sri Lanka saw us as a team that they were more than capable of beating. I think they felt under pressure to beat us" Robert Croft

Hussain: There was a bit of a row in the dressing room. I pulled my hip flexor in that game and couldn't move, but I wanted to go out and bat when we were five down. Ath spoke up and said I shouldn't, because it would put pressure on Thorpe, who was great at rotating the strike, knocking it into corners and then sprinting singles and twos. I wasn't the best of runners anyway and Ath felt that me hobbling around on one leg wouldn't do Thorpey's cause any good. Dunc pulled him to one side and sort of said, "If our captain wants to go out and you disagree, have a quite word with me, don't speak up in front of everyone." So there was a little bit of "Should I, shouldn't I?" As it was, I went out and bat-padded one and got out for not many.

Croft: The pitch was starting to explode. The top was starting to go. We lost a few wickets. Thorpey played exceptional again, and the way the pitch had gone, his 30-odd not out was like getting a hundred in each innings.

Giles: We really would not have won without Thorpey's input - or output - and it was just a great feeling. As dehydrated as we might have been, we celebrated quite hard that night. That climate was the toughest I played in, by far. It's a wonderful place, great people, but from a conditions point of view, it's bloody tough on the body.

Hussain: Thorpe played like an absolute genius on that trip. He was your go-to man. In those situations, in that cauldron, playing Murali on a spinning pitch, without over-attacking him, he was absolutely monumental. And it was old-school: the knocking and nurdling and nudging at which Thorpe was so gifted. He gave everyone a masterclass.

You da man: Captain Nasser Hussain holds the series trophy, standing next to Man of the Match Graham Thorpe in Colombo

You da man: Captain Nasser Hussain holds the series trophy, standing next to Man of the Match Graham Thorpe in Colombo © Getty Images

Thorpe was the clear Man of the Match, and Gough the Man of the Series, one in which Murali averaged over 30 with the ball and failed to take a five-for, his strike rate hitting three digits at home for the only time between 1994 and hanging up his boots in 2010.

The winter as a whole was an improving England team's finest hour, the first time since 1888 they had come from 1-0 down to win a three-match series - against an opponent whose record across their next ten bilateral home series, over five years, would read P25 W16 D5 L4, a 0-3 loss to Australia their only series defeat. It was a monumental achievement, described by Wisden as "a triumph of character and discipline", inspired by their combative captain, now two years on the job.

Croft: Captaincy brought the best out of Nasser as a bloke. He was always very single-minded about his batting career, but once he was given the job, he had to start thinking for other people and try and get the best out of them. And he did that. He was pretty clear on what he expected from everybody, and you felt his passion and ambition to do well. He expected the highest standards.

I think Sri Lanka saw us as a team that they were more than capable of beating. There was a weight of expectation to deliver against us, a team that at that stage weren't well known for playing spin, weren't well known for doing well in the subcontinent, and I think they felt under pressure to beat us.

Arnold: We were very disappointed. It was a shock loss. That Australian team [in 2004] were in a different class. They would have taken a lot of beating. England were not really up there at that level. For the team they had at that stage, it's more to do with the fight and resilience. That stands out a lot more. They were happy to grind, which not many teams are ready to do. That takes a lot of character.

Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper