Tom Helm was a fitting match-winner on the last match of the Lions tour of Sri Lanka, with a five-wicket haul to complete a winter of rapid progress.
The 22-year-old Middlesex quick was not even in the Lions programme when the squads were originally selected at the end of the 2016 summer, but impressed so much after being invited to join the Lions in Dubai that he was fast-tracked from the Pace Programme to the party for Sri Lanka.
He had amply justified that selection with his performances in the first four-day match in Kandy – when he dragged rare life out of the pitch to take a crucial wicket in each innings, and also contributed key runs with the bat – and in three previous appearances in the one-day series, without claiming the figures his bowling deserved.
All that changed on a sultry Saturday at the Colombo Cricket Club, as Helm took two wickets with consecutive balls in his first over, then returned to claim three more as Sri Lanka A were dismissed for 192.
He became only the fifth bowler to take five wickets in a List A match for the Lions or the England A and B teams who preceded them, joining Peter Trego, Alex Gidman, David Willey and Tom Curran, who set a new record of five for 16 against the UAE last December in the match in which Helm made his Lions debut.
The Lions seemed to be cruising to a comfortable victory when Keaton Jennings and Ben Duckett put on 54 inside nine overs. But not for the first time in this series the departure of Duckett, brilliantly caught at mid-on for 28, led to a wobble, on the same pitch used for the fourth game of the series on Thursday.
Jennings was fourth out for 38 from 46 balls, also caught at mid-on, but Ben Foakes kept the Lions narrowly ahead on DLS calculations until the umpires stopped play for safety reasons as thunder and lightning surrounded the ground.
The match was abandoned half an hour later, confirming a 12-run win for the Lions – their second in succession in Colombo, although the Sri Lankans had already sealed the series by winning the first three games in Dambulla and Kurunegala.
“We had a tough start to the one-day series, so we can take something from having brought them back to 3-2,” said Helm. “For me it’s good to contribute to a win.
"I couldn’t be happier with how the winter’s turned out."
“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.
“It’s an amazing feeling putting this shirt on, and it’s just nice to finally take some wickets in it. One of my main aims was to leave this trip in one piece, and I’ve done that, so I’m pretty happy.
“I couldn’t be happier with how the winter’s turned out. It’s not really how I expected it to go. It’s a lovely place to come, but tough as a seamer.”
Helm now heads straight for Dubai, to join Middlesex’s preparations for the defence of their Specsavers County Championship title – starting with the four-day game against MCC in Abu Dhabi from March 26.
Jennings is one of 10 other members of the Lions squad who are also heading to the UAE, to play in the new North-South Series which begins in Dubai on March 17.
“The guys are all looking forward to playing in a different context,” said the Durham opener. “Hopefully the North can win it 3-0. It should be a lot of fun.”
Liam Livingstone and Graeme White, who are both in the North squad which will be captained by Jennings, will be hoping to replicate the spin combination that stifled the Sri Lankan innings after Helm’s early wickets.
Livingstone, again bowling off-spin rather than the leg-spin for which he had been better-known before this tour, bowled his 10 overs straight through for figures of two for 27 – giving him seven for 144 from 40 overs for the one-day series, and completing a memorable personal tour in which he also scored a century in each innings of the four-day match in Dambulla.
White, the Northamptonshire left-arm spinner who was another late inclusion in the Lions squad, followed three wickets on his debut on Thursday by taking one for 30.
Josh Poysden, the Warwickshire leg-spinner who was recalled for his second Lions appearance, also earned a maiden wicket, and Craig Overton bowled tidily without reward.
But Helm was the undoubted star of the show. His first wicket was courtesy of Ron Chandraguptha’s loose drive to Livingstone at cover point, but the next ball was too good for Sadeera Samarawickrama who was bowled trying to withdraw his bat.
Helm went close to a hat-trick, with Charith Asalanka squeezing out a yorker, before taking wickets three and four in his second spell, as Angelo Perera and Dasun Shanaka were both caught behind by Foakes – one of three players, with Jennings and Livingstone, to have played in every match of the four-day and one-day series.
Then, after Sri Lanka’s last pair had frustrated the Lions with a stand of 52, Helm returned to splay the stumps of Ramith Rambukwella with the first ball of his third spell. “I’m glad I got him first ball because I was cramping up, and it could have been a difficult over,” he joked.