England rewrote the schoolboy howler manual yesterday in trying to let Sri Lanka off the hook. They dropped catches, they missed run outs, they forgot to appeal, they declined a review, they were masters of the cock-up.
Yet somehow, despite a list of lapses that would have shamed the Bash Street Kids third XI, they still managed to dismiss the tourists for 257. As a result, England are in a dominant position in the second Investec Test which is exactly where they should be. If they fail to win from here the great new age will have taken a decided turn for the worse.
England’s general lack of nous extended to their failure to realise that Stuart Broad had taken his second Test hat-trick. True it spanned two overs, the last of his 12th and the first two of his 13th, but it is a rare enough feat at this level (this was the 41st instance) to be noticeable. Only when the public address announcer mentioned it at the end of the over did some of Broad’s colleagues congratulate him.
Broad’s deed apart, which followed his more spectacular feat at Trent Bridge against India in 2011, there were five wickets for Liam Plunkett for the first time in a Test innings. Plunkett bowled with serious pace, especially in a brutally probing spell after lunch, and his recall after seven years begins to look like a selectorial masterstroke.
With a little more than an hour to bat before the close, England reached 36 for 0. The good news was that Alastair Cook, their captain, was 16 not out though he survived one heart-stopping moment when an edge to first slip was adjudged by the third umpire, Paul Reiffel, not to have carried. Maybe this was the turning point.
England’s captain needs a break. This is not the sort that many of Cook’s increasingly shrill band of critics have in mind for him – exile to the shires – but a slice of fortune from which the good times may roll again.
For this to happen, he needs his team’s help in abundance which they failed hopelessly to provide in proper measure on the opening day. The more strident and irrational of Cook’s detractors would say that it is up to him to galvanise them to perform great deeds. But he cannot take their catches or execute their run outs, or wipe their bottoms (he is doing plenty of that at home with the new baby).
Seven opportunities of varying type and degree, from playschool to masters degree level, were missed. Four of them reprieved Kumar Sangakkara, at 0, 16, 27 and 57 in what was perhaps the least fluent of his 83 Test scores above 50.
Cook has played 102 consecutive Test matches, easily an England record, this is his 21st consecutive match as captain and never has he been under more scrutiny. His decision to bowl on winning the toss turned out to be justified despite his charges’ worst endeavours but it did not meet with universal approval, if only on the grounds that somebody would take issue with Cook at present if he said that the England Test team’s kit is white. In some of the more warped opinions, Cook made the call because given his form he would be reluctant to bat.
The list of misdemeanours started early. In the eighth over, England decided against reviewing an lbw appeal by Broad that was rejected. Replays showed that the decision would have been overturned. Soon after, Sangakkara, keen for an off the mark single, was sent back and should have been run out by a combination of Broad and Matt Prior but Broad’s throw missed and Prior failed to gather it.
Before lunch, Mahela Jayawardene was missed at leg slip by a leaping Ian Bell, in his 100th Test match. In the last over before lunch, England failed to appeal for a catch behind against Sangakkara but there was a distinct edge according to slow motion reprises.
Then came the worst lapse when Prior completely fluffed an edge off a lifting ball from Plunkett which hit him in the chest. There was still time for Sangakkara to be dropped by Moeen Ali flinging himself to his right at point and for Gary Ballance to shell a regulation slip catch above his head when Sri Lanka were nine down.
Yet amid this catalogue of blunders, England bowled with skill and gusto, encouraged by a pitch which offered movement and pace. The ball, lo and behold, swung and bounced in a fashion which it patently declined to do over five sapping days at Lord’s.
Jimmy Anderson, incisive early, made the breakthrough with a lovely over to Kaushal Silva in which he twice beat the outside edge and then took it. Before lunch, Plunkett, in a sign of things to come, bowled Dimuth Karunaratne with a full length swinging ball from round the wicket.
In the early afternoon, Plunkett demonstrated why England recalled him. Perhaps Cook kept him on too long but it was easy to see why he was tempted to do so. Plunkett was rapid and he was enjoying himself. In successive balls he had Jayawardene edging a lifter to second slip where Jordan took a wonderful catch, low and one-handed to his right, and then flummoxed Lahiru Thirimanne with shorest ball which he could only poke to Sam Robson at short leg.
Briefly, Sangakkara, riding his luck with a veteran’s shrug, and Angelo Mathews offered attractive resistance before Mathews pushed outside off stump and edged to slip.
Another stand of sorts followed with Dinesh Chandimal and there was a flurry of boundaries after tea. This was followed by a flurry of wickets, four of which fell in nine balls, including Broad’s hat-trick and another for Plunkett. Broad it was who ended Sangakkara’s luck by having him smartly caught by Bell at backward point, a catch to mark his landmark.
Plunkett deserved his five wicket haul and duly finished it with Prior taking his fourth catch, though it was hardly cause for a fuss after what had gone before.