Down the years, England might have fashioned more impressive beginnings to Test series on foreign soil. But not often, not recently, and research to find out when and how may take longer than is strictly necessary or available in busy modern lives.
Contrast yesterday in Kandy, when they dismissed Sri Lanka for 188 and responded with 49 for 1, to a year ago in Brisbane, when Australia were 346 for 3 after the first day. Sri Lanka are not, of course, Australia, and it would be risible to make the comparison, but at home they are a handful.
Sri Lanka have lost only two of their previous 14 series, and if that were to become three in 15 in the next three weeks it would be a feather in England's caps.
The day was defined by two equally outstanding contributions, one from either side. Matthew Hoggard opened a breach in Sri Lanka's defences with straight bowling of the most honest kind, abetted by a hint, little more, of swing and seam. Kumar Sangakkara staunched the immediate flow of blood with an innings of the highest order, vigilant under pressure, ever aware of scoring opportunities.
Perhaps Hoggard's was the more decisive effort, because there was no coming back from such damage. Sri Lanka were 42 for 5 on the first morning of a home series after winning the toss in benign conditions. It was as if they were still in Australia, where last month they were knocked from pillar to post. Revival was possible but highlyimprobable with their long tail.
When the home side managed to extend their innings into the late afternoon it was being suggested that a total of 250 might prove a severe examination for England. This was to miss the point that, on losing the toss, England would have settled for restricting the opposition to 250, whereas the total of 188 eventually accrued was what they would have gone to bed dreaming of the night before. Only twice before had Sri Lanka succumbed for a lower score against England: in their inaugural Test 25 years ago; and on the chaotic third and final day in Colombo six years ago, when 22 wickets fell.
Hoggard took 4 for 21 in his electrifying opening spell. When Test series are done it is usual to reflect on turning points, when it was won and lost. If England were to go on and win from here a long, long way to go Hoggard's bowling here would be a strong contender.
After he took an early wicket to remove Michael Vandort, who misjudged the swing and clipped to mid-on, he did not strike again until immediately after the drinks break. It was as though Popeye had been fed spinach. All three of his next victims were caught behind, all three had to play. Mahela Jayawardene got one that moved late first ball after the break, Chamara Silva likewise, with just a hint of seam movement too, and then Jehan Mubarak was all at sea to a delivery which cut across him.
In his droll way Hoggard was willing to take a little of thecredit. "The ball moved about a little bit and they managed to nick it rather than miss it," he said. "It was my lucky day. I rate other spells when the ball hasn'tswung as better than that."
England will not have to play catch-up cricket for once. Not if they can fend off Muttiah Muralitharan, five wickets from the world Test wicket-taking record and desperate to perform the feat on the ground where he used to play for his school.
There were, therefore, mixed feelings when Monty Panesar started turning the ball. If that was what Panesar could do, where did that leave Murali? In clover, where he has spent the bulk of his career, was one of the first answers to spring to mind.
What respectability was lent to Sri Lanka's innings was giftedby Sangakkara with some essential assistance from Prasanna Jayawardene. Apart from constructing a handsome half-century, Jayawardene can perhaps take some of the creditfor his colleague's recentbreathtaking run of form. His introduction to the Test side as wicketkeeper since the tour of England in 2006 means that Sangakkara can concentrate on one discipline, batting at three. He has flourished with the regularity and beauty of the naa tree. He now averages 153 in his last 13 innings. They have yieldedsix centuries, which would have been seven but for eight richly deserved runs yesterday.
This year alone he has made 769 runs in four and a half matches. If that includes two unbeaten double hundreds against Bangladesh, it also includes 57 and 192 against Australia. There was nothing flashy about Sangakkara yesterday. He recognised and understood the early movement, he played with correctness but never forgot the importance of run-scoring.
Sangakkara is at the height of his career. Sad that the same cannot be said for his colleague Sanath Jayasuriya, on whom at the age of 38 the sun is almost setting. When he drove to extra cover to leave Sri Lanka a wicketdown in the third over it was a typical dismissal. There has been one score above 50 in his previous 27 innings. It is being widelysuggested that Jayasuriya will call it a Test day at the end of this series, and it is to be hoped that he can get his average above 40 once more (it slipped below it with his 10 yesterday). He has been an adornment to the game.
Sri Lanka won toss
Sri Lanka First Innings
M G Vandort c Vaughan b Hoggard 8
(Inswinger chipped to mid-on; 41 min, 22 balls, 1 four)
S T Jayasuriya c Pietersen b Sidebottom 10
(Diving catch at extra cover; 12 min, 12 balls, 2 fours)
K C Sangakkara c Collingwood b Anderson 92
(Fine one-hander at gully; 250 min, 159 balls, 13 fours)
*D P M D Jayawardene c Prior b Hoggard 1
(Thin edge to outswinger; 23 balls, 12 min)
L P C Silva c Prior b Hoggard 2
(Thin edge to outswinger; 8 min, 6 balls)
J Mubarak c Prior b Hoggard 0
(Thin edge to delivery across body; 4 min, 5 balls)
H A P W Jayawardene c Cook b Panesar 51
(Snaffled in silly point's lap; 131 min, 102 balls, 9 fours)
W P U J C Vaas b Panesar 12
(Backing away trying to cut; 25 min, 22 balls, 2 fours)
C R D Fernando c Vaughan b Panesar 0
(Looped to gully off glove; 14 min, 11 balls)
S L Malinga not out 1
(13 min, 7 balls)
M Muralitharan run out (Bopara/Anderson) 1
(Comical mix-up by tail-enders; 2 min, 1 ball)
Extras (lb8 nb2) 10
Total (266 min, 59.4 overs) 188
Fall: 1-11 (Jayasuriya), 2-29 (Vandort), 3-40 (D P M D Jayawardene), 4-42 (Silva), 5-42 (Mubarak), 6-148 (H A P W Jayawardene), 7-180 (Vaas), 8-182 (Fernando),9-186 (Sangakkara), 10-188 (Muralitharan).
Bowling: Sidebottom 15-1-58-1 (6-0-24-1, 2-0-13-0, 3-1-6-0, 4-0-15-0), Hoggard 14-3-29-4 (nb1) (10-3-21-4, 4-0-8-0), Anderson 15.4-3-39-1 (6-2-19-0, 5-0-11-0, 4.4-1-9-1), Bopara 1-0-8-0 (nb1), Panesar 14-4-46-3 (one spell each).
Sangakkara 50: 145 min, 80 balls, 7 fours. H A P W Jayawardene 50: 123 min, 84 balls, 9 fours.
England First innings
A J Cook lbw b Vaas 0
(Trapped playing across the line; 1 min, 3 balls)
*M P Vaughan not out 13
(74 min, 55 balls, 2 fours)
I R Bell not out 36
(72 min, 44 balls, 4 fours)
Total (1 wkt, 74 min, 17 overs) 49
Fall: 1-0 (Cook).
To bat: K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, R S Bopara, M J Prior, R J Sidebottom, M J Hoggard, J M Anderson,M S Panesar.
Bowling: W P U J C Vaas 7-3-18-1, S L Malinga 5-1-20-0, M Muralitharan 3-2-2-0, S T Jayasuriya 2-0-9-0 (one spell each).
Progress: 50 in 93 min, 18.5 overs. Lunch 86-5 (Sangakkara 39, H A P W Jayawardene 23) 25 overs. 100 in 145 min, 30.3 overs. 150 in 215 min, 46.4 overs. Tea 180-7 (Sangakkara 86, Fernando 0) 53 overs. Innings closed 3.57pm. Bad light stopped play 5.22pm.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and Asad Rauf (Pak).
Third umpire: T H Wijewardene. Match referee: J J Crowe (NZ).
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