SRI LANKA remains far from the madding crowd of India but this time England responded not with the beach cricket of Wednesday when they realised too late they are not yet on holiday but with a steely resolve to rescue something tangible from the wreckage of the tour.
None was more determined to do so than Robin Smith, who batted for six hours with immense concentration. It was not pretty, but it was effective, and after three months when much of their cricket has been neither, England were mightily grateful.
Their closing score of 245 for 3 represented the first day's Test cricket in 16 on this tour when England have held control. In India they were always chasing the game; here they are now in a position to dictate. Today they will seek to push towards 500, and with the wicket expected to turn increasingly, to look for John Emburey's control and Phil Tufnell's guile to put the Sri Lankan batsmen under the type of pressure England have experienced only too often.
For Smith the immediate target today will be his first Test century outside England. For someone brought up on boerewors and sunshine rather than roast beef and winter fog he has a curious record, seven hundreds in 24 home Tests, none in 15 away before this one. Last January he fell four runs short in New Zealand but that was a scratchy, groping innings and it was amazing he got so close.
This time Smith has looked in control throughout. The innings earned poor marks for artistic impression but was top of the class for technical merit. He made 26 in the first session, 32 in the second and, as England dug in for a big score, 33 in the last. In the first hour he hit five fours, but once the unfortunate Michael Atherton went for 13, he assumed the anchoring role and rarely emerged from watchful defence. It was a powerful submission for his case to be considered as a long-term opener, but one on which Keith Fletcher would not be drawn into passing premature judgement.
'He is a good all-round bat,' the England team manager said. 'He can play anywhere. It is another option. He did a tremendous job today and he was determined that England were going to put up a better show. Robin showed lots of guts because it was a very hard day of Test cricket.
'It is the type of pitch we played on in the first Test in Calcutta - and you can see that the players are getting used to playing against spin on the type of surface which we just don't get in England.'
Since opening because of Gooch's illness in the Madras Test, Smith has done the job eight times, scoring more than 400 runs at an average close to 60.
When he strode into the England team he was all bristling forearm and gritted teeth. The grit is still there, but although he must be the first England opener for a long time to bat without a helmet, it is now expressed more in his courage to work his way through technical problems.
While Smith has struggled on most of his tours he usually ends strongly - perhaps he should head for the West Indies next winter a couple of months early and play the Red Stripe Cup - and he never stops working on his game. His net sessions are quality nets rather than netting for the sake of it.
While the revival of Smith's battles with Merv Hughes this summer may see more frequent unleashing of the crashing square drive - there was a vintage one off Sanath Jayasuriya yesterday - he now plays far straighter. The benefit of that was seen early as, after electing to bat, England were given a testing time by Champaka Ramanayake.
In 34C heat and high humidity Ramanayake bowled a long spell in which he beat the outside edge on several occasions and also brought the ball in off the pitch. His reward was the wicket of Atherton, leg before to one that came in. Atherton was probably more a victim of rusty than faulty judgement. Had Ramanayake had proper support rather than the part-timer Asanka Gurusinha, England could easily have lost more wickets and the innings been paralysed by fear of more humiliation.
Instead, Mike Gatting, another whose Ashes place is under severe threat, was given the opportunity to show signs of playing his way back into form only to play slightly too forcefully to Muttiah Muralitharan and be caught at silly point. The young spinner showed plenty of promise in a 30-over day and also claimed Graeme Hick caught at short leg.
That was a prize wicket, for Hick was in rich form. Since his Madras half-century he has been averaging more than 70 in Tests. Here he immediately exuded confidence, lifting the spinners over their heads, twice hitting sixes, and playing all round the wicket. The man who left England in December weighed down by bewildering failure is but a memory.
The only disappointment was the crowd which, hit by attendance at traditional school matches, was even worse than expected. The 200 Sri Lankans dotted in clumps of shade around the grass banks were even outnumbered by English supporters, the long-term travellers lying bronzed in the full glare of the sun, and the pasty-legged cricket fanatics pleased to see England winning but disappointed to discover the Asian passion for Test cricket stops at the south-Indian coast.
England's improved performance should at least quieten debate on facial hair and sloppy dress. While county chairmen and Test and County Cricket Board officials, some of whom were hardly a picture of sartorial elegance when on the tour in India, pursue such irrelevances the team increasingly see the itinerary as the enemy. Not just the taxing travel arrangements and confusing juxtaposition of one- day and Test matches, but the decision to take on the stronger opponent first.
Had England come initially to Sri Lanka they would have taken this leg more seriously from the start and also acquired some technique against spin before facing the more daunting challenge of India.
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