Ian Bell is on the verge of being an excellent Test batsman for England. He has hit four 50s in consecutive innings. The problem, alas, is he invariably fails to go on, a victim of a loss of concentration, a loose shot or, as today, a slight misjudgment. Nonetheless, when the agony of England's narrow loss begins to clear, he can reflect on probably his best Test to date: two excellent, and deeply contrasting innings. But ultimately it was all in vain.
Bell displayed immense powers of concentration during his five-hour vigil. Admirably, he is developing the ability to bat at completely different tempos depending on the match circumstances: he scored at a strike-rate of 35 in the second innings, against 66 in the third. Anyone who can top score in both innings in Sri Lanka clearly possesses immense class and mental resilience. Promoted to number three, however, Bell needs to be making match-defining contributions: which means 150s.
He was on the verge of playing a match-saving innings of wonderful quality before Muttiah Muralitharan was transformed into lethal new-ball bowler. Matt Prior will also feel sickened at having failed to complete the match-saving job but, after his first innings pair, he responded magnificently. Undoubtedly, this was his best international innings to date, infinitely greater than the rather facile runs he plundered against the West Indies.
From reducing the hosts to 42-5 on the opening day, this was a game that gradually slipped out of England's grasp. Primarily, the fault lies with the batsmen, who failed to display the necessary ruthlessness to secure a first innings lead in the region of 150 and succumbed fatally to Chaminda Vaas in the second innings. The two Essex men are of particular concern: Alistair Cook's problem against left-armers may need rectifying out of the side; 'all-rounder' Ravi Bopara was Paul Collingwood's inferior with the ball and, despite some fine shots, lacked solidity at the crease; Mark Ramprakash or Owais Shah would have been more worthy picks. Borderline selection James Anderson, meanwhile, justified my concerns over his place in the side and will surely now be dropped.
In this match, England were ultimately beaten by the better team. Sri Lanka are far from infallible, especially with Sanath Jayasuriya having retired, and their batting line-up has real areas of weakness. After a valiant recovery from 90-5, England will have hopes for the rest of the series. But, unless England can find an answer to Sri Lanka's twin totems, Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara, these will only prove fleeting.