Helm enhances reputation with five-for in win
England Lions 124 for 5 (Jennings 38) beat Sri Lanka A 192 (Gunathilaka 51, Helm 5-33) by 12 runs (Duckworth-Lewis method)
Tom Helm had expressed modest ambitions for his first England Lions tour. "One of my main aims was to leave the tour in one piece," he said. A young fast bowler can soon become philosophical when his early career is strewn with stress fractures and injury mishaps in the field. But he has not merely survived, he has finished with his reputation enhanced.
With Helm to the fore, England Lions again chose the colonial-style backdrop of Colombo Cricket Club to salvage respectability from their lost one-day series in Sri Lanka. A second win in 48 hours cut the margin of defeat to 3-2 and, after the batting exploits of Daniel Bell-Drummond and Tom Alsop on Thursday, came the fast-bowling promise of Helm, who returned the second-best figures in Lions history.
Finally, records are available for nearly 30 years of Lions cricket in all its guises - the ECB deserves credit for that - and they reveal that Helm's 5 for 33 was only the fifth five-wicket haul in Lions history, surpassed only by Tom Curran's 5 for 16 against UAE in Dubai before Christmas. Curran was pulled out of the one-day leg of the Sri Lanka tour to join England's senior squad in the West Indies; Helm did enough to encourage hopes that one day he may follow.
Even before this display, Helm felt like one of the successes of the tours, only without the stand-out performance to amplify the thought. His director of cricket at Middlesex, Gus Fraser, was on hand when he was limited to two wickets in a four-day affair in Kandy, although they were good ones as he made both balls bounce to leave Fraser nodding with appreciation. He found ways to concern batsmen on Sri Lankan pitches, was unafraid to vary his approach and was forewarned of the challenges ahead by England age-group experience in India earlier in his career.
A Lions tour had not been on his mind after a season in which he made only four appearances in all competitions. He was pleased enough to be called up to a fast bowling camp, but he quickly impressed and with England's youthful pace resources not exactly limitless his promotion quickly followed.
Strangely, he looks more powerful on the pitch than off it, which might say something about a strong, repeatable action as well as a mild disposition. England might still want him to bulk up a little, especially considering an injury record that he will hope is now behind him. His parents have watched him throughout the tour and have even been able to draw pleasure from the first six of his List A career.
Helm will now go to Dubai for a Middlesex pre-season tour (Fraser having abandoned the practice tent at Radlett in deference to last year's Championship win) and for the Champion County match against the MCC.
"I couldn't be happier with how the winter's turned out," Helm said. "It's not really how I expected it to go. It's a lovely place to come, but tough as a seamer. I bowled a lot of balls that should have been hit to the fence, and they ended up hitting them to fielders. I felt like other days I've bowled better but they've hit good balls to the fence."
As the Lions' tour of Sri Lanka drew to a halt, the other match in Colombo 7 was still attracting more attention. Down the road at Sinhalese Sports Club, the 138th Battle of the Blues was heading for another inevitable draw, or at least deemed that way by a convivial Bar-Propper, with a grand beard and even grander feathered hat who marked the start of play at Colombo Cricket Club with his first hard liquor of the day.
"I might go down there later," he said, signalling down Maitland Place, where the unerring responsibility shown by the young players of Royal and St Thomas Colleges were being watched - or half-watched - by a crowd of 10,000, "but I tend to get stuck here." There are worst places to linger than the members' bar at CCC, but when Sri Lanka A crumbled to 82 for 6 by the 21st over, he rose from his seat to find consolation in Sri Lanka's most historic schools contest.
Helm had begun that decline in his first over with two wickets in successive balls, grateful when Ron Chandraguptha slapped one to cover and bowling Sadeera Samarawickrama first ball. Two wicket-keeper catches accounted in later spells for Angelo Perera and Dasun Shanaka, before he returned for a final time to end a vexing last-wicket stand of 52 with a leg-stump yorker to remove the imposing Ramith Rambukwella.
"I'm glad I got him out first ball because I was cramping," Helm said. "It would have been a long over otherwise."
Helm's incursions had been followed by another unyielding spell of off spin by Liam Livingstone, 2 for 27 this time as his reliability drew self-destructive moments from Charith Asalanka and Ashan Priyanjan, whose slog sweep down straight midwicket's throat was a curious shot from a captain at that stage of the contest.
Livingstone has not bowled offspin for long, but you would not credit it. He began the tour intending to bowl legspin (his more common style) at right-handers and offspin at left-handers, but the left-handers in Sri Lanka's line-up have kept coming and because he has been in the groove, as series figures of 7 for 144 in 40 overs testify, the legspin has rarely appeared. His promise as an attacking England one-day batsman and sixth bowler is apparent.
Name a third player to prosper and Ben Foakes, the neatest of wicketkeepers has obvious Test potential. As for the three Test top-order batsman, Haseeb Hameed (in the four-day series) and Ben Duckett and Keaton Jennings throughout the tour have had a largely frustrating time, although without any sense that the disappointment will be terminal.
On the same surface used 48 hours ago, Sri Lanka A were not without hope in defending 192. When the captain, Jennings, holed out at mid-on, so completing his frustrating tour of twenties and thirties, a murder of crows landed malevolently by the England dressing room.
At 90 for 4, chasing 193, the Lions were not dead, but they were certainly unwell. The air was dense with the threat of rain and Sri Lankan expectation. But then came the threat of lightning, the players never returned, and Messrs Duckworth and Lewis proved to be a couple of old colonials. Club sandwich anyone?
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps