England endured the full cultural experience on their first day of competitive cricket in Sri Lanka yesterday. A hot, humid morning and a benign pitch ensured that Michael Vaughan's bowlers toiled after the captain had lost the toss, and by the time a violent thunderstorm had deposited its load, leaving the outfield resembling a paddyfield, the Sri Lankan Board President's XI had moved effortlessly to 218 for 3.
In between, on the stroke of lunch, there was the spectacle of several England players rushing to a corner of the ground where a couple of cobras had been seen basking in a small area of scrub. Reports on how big the snakes were vary. Graeme Swann, the England spinner, said that a player rushed in to the changing room claiming one was eight metres long. More reliable sources suggested that two metres was a fairer assessment.
Whatever the size of the serpent, in a country with the highest snakebite fatality rate in the world – two people are reportedly killed here by snakes every day – no England player would have been keen to fetch the ball within the vicinity of the sighting.
It would be unfair to say that the reptiles were the most venomous beings on show because England's seamers worked hard and bowled pretty well. Ryan Sidebottom was the pick, mixing up his bowling yet keeping an excellent line. Sidebottom beat the bat on several occasions and deserved more than a solitary wicket. The left-arm seamer was warned for running on the pitch in his follow-through. An inspection showed that he had transgressed on several occasions and it is something he has to watch because Test umpires are more vigilant.
Matthew Hoggard was steady without ever looking penetrative and in the afternoon session there was the slightly worrying sight of him losing his run-up on four consecutive occasions. James Anderson produced something of a mixed bag and Stuart Broad was aggressive, taking the opening wicket with a well-directed bouncer. But there was very little in the pitch for any of England's fast men. Stephen Harmison turned up to meet his team-mates after unpacking his bags at the hotel and his arrival coincided with England taking two quick wickets. The fast, bouncy pitches of South Africa will feel like a distant memory when he straps his boots on and bowls here either today or tomorrow.
The major disappointment for England was the bowling of their spinners. On a surface that offered assistance, Monty Panesar and Swann would have expected to create far more problems than they did. Swann conceded 65 runs in his 12 overs and Panesar was struck for five fours in his opening over.
Panesar had one moment of success, when Tillekaratne Dilshan mis-hit an attempted blow down the ground and chipped a straightforward catch to deepish cover point.
Dilshan is not the only member of the Board XI trying to impress the selectors. The retirement of Marvan Atapattu means that an opening spot is now available and Upul Tharanga could not have done more to show that it should go to him. Tharanga batted beautifully, offering a straight bat when the bowling was straight and cutting anything loose for four. The left-hander closed the day unbeaten on 92 and he will be looking to bat for at least another session, too.
Chamara Kapugedera made his Test debut against England last summer aged 19 and he is an exciting batsman. He was dropped on 36 by Alastair Cook in the gully, one of three shelled in a rusty fielding display, but he played several sumptuous shots including a huge straight six off Swann.
"It was a frustrating day for Monty and myself," admitted Swann. "When you know you are playing on a pitch that is taking turn and you can't get your rhythm right or land the ball where you want it is frustrating."