England v Sri Lanka: Centurion Joe Root and Matt Prior stop a wobble turning into a crisis
England 344-5 v Sri Lanka
There were bright moments for England here. Eventually they dazzled, easily out-matching a sequence of pesky, gloomy blighters, any one of which can spoil the best parties.
The first day of the first Test, long awaited since it was beginning to feel that the opening series of the season might as well be played in mid-February to ensure the advantage of home conditions, ended with the match well poised but going away from Sri Lanka. After a hesitant start on a surface with a tinge slightly more green than their team, England recovered to 344 for 5.
They would have settled for this under any circumstances and under those that they created themselves by early afternoon they would have done a backdoor deal to obtain. Joe Root, the 23-year-old Yorkshireman, made the key contribution of 102 not out. It was his third Test hundred, his second in succession at Lord’s and an astute, ultimately confident innings which ensured that an uncomfortable position did not become a crisis.
There were other optimistic events, which is what you need in a new era. Ian Bell made a pin-sharp 56 before inexplicably playing marginally across a straight ball. Matt Prior, returning to the team after a horrendous year, with legions of Jos Buttler admirers squatting on his shoulder as he walked through the Long Room, scored a typically busy and dashing unbeaten 76 to send them scurrying away but only after surviving a perilously close lbw appeal to his second ball. His unbroken sixth-wicket partnership with Root may well define the match.
Perhaps above all, Moeen Ali batted with a nonchalant handsomeness which suggested that he could have a durable Test career as a batsman and never mind the off-spin bowling. He was audacious and careful as the occasion demanded in precarious circumstances; it was a surprise when he executed the swishing drive on 48 which ended at first slip.
There is still much work to do in this match on an improving pitch under a hot sun. And not everything that England did well later in the day could disguise the shortcomings of what happened earlier. Chief among these and the most worrying was the dismissal of Alastair Cook.
Under the new regime at the head of the team, Cook has been handed abundant responsibility. It has been made clear that it is his team. This was a perfectly sound proposition, although it should always have been his team. The odd thing is that it seemed to become less of his team as events in the past 12 months unfolded.
Now, he needs runs quickly at the top of the order. His two dreadful Ashes series (averages in the mid 20s in both) offer him little leeway now. An early cut for four was what was wanted. It seared straight to the boundary but had the look of being a corner-turning shot. Not so.
Cook needs cuts and pulls and flicks like a kettle needs water to boil. Without them he dries up. In this case, he went searching for them and he perished trying to cut a ball too close for the purpose, the resulting inside edge rebounding on to his stumps. He is a resolute, calm character, he has the support of his team. But he has to turn it round.
His was the second wicket to fall, following Sam Robson’s apprehensive poke at a ball outside off stump. He was entitled to be nervous, and he was. Gary Ballance, a peculiar choice for No 3, looked good and bad in parts but never settled. He favoured the back foot too much, he was out driving loosely outside off.
When Bell was out following a review (always better at least than following the ball) he might have considered himself unfortunate. But he missed out on a hundred against an attack that was always likely to be found a little short of the necessary on a flat pitch. The danger of collapse was averted by a stand of 89 between Root and Moeen. The danger of under-achievement was prevented by the one shared by Root and Prior. It might have been different. Prior propped forward to his second ball which sneaked through the gate and hit him on the back leg. It looked out and Sri Lanka thought so.
But the review failed because the replay showed that the ball might had been hitting but struck Prior fractionally outside the line of off stump. Had he been given out and referred the decision himself that decision too would have stood under the umpire’s call regulation.
On such margins are matches won and lost, and careers made and broken. Both might have happened in that instant. Prior, being the wonderful professional cricketer and classy chap he is, simply continued to go about his business.
For most of the rest of the afternoon, it was as though the grotesque business of the last year never took place and he was England player of the year again. He set the tempo and ensured that Root could go along at his own pace. This is what the selectors had in mind when they eschewed the claims of Buttler.
A year ago, of course, Root was being hailed as Cook’s new opening batsman for a generation. Replacing the perfectly competent Nick Compton, he made 180 against Australia at Lord’s and the place seemed to be his for longer than that if he wanted. But the cares, the sheer volume of international cricket began to wear him down.
By accident rather than design he went back down the order and by the end of the winter Ashes he was out of the team. In now at five, he was all order and composure. Staying low at the crease, doing little with a flourish he was not especially fluent at the start but there were few lapses.
Towards the end, England were rattling along and he reached his hundred with a scurried three in the penultimate over. The sixth-wicket stand had reached 135 and the fortunes of the day had been reversed.
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