Sri Lanka feel pain as England pacemen reign in the rain

Sri Lanka 81-4 v England: A stop-start affair for the first Test at southernmost venue but tourists' frailties are exposed yet again
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This cricket season feels as though it has never started. The train has pulled away from the platform several times but never has it gone more than a few yards before signal failure, or leaves on the line have interrupted progress.

There has been no sense of fluency, rhythm or that the journey is actually under way. So it was at the Rose Bowl yesterday for what should have been a celebratory occasion for English cricket when torrential rain delayed the start and kept interrupting.

Yet by the close of the first day of the Third Test, England, winning an attractive toss, had left Sri Lanka in disarray. The tourists' top four had all gone by the 24th over, undone by movement, bounce and a distinct unwillingness for the fray. They recovered partially to 81-4 with Thilan Samaraweera gradually displaying some application but the feeling is that the damage is done.

Nothing embodied Sri Lanka's pitiable state more than the dismissal of their temporary captain, Kumar Sangakkara. He is one of the world's top cricketers, a batsman who has thrilled audiences and tormented opponents. But this tour has been one of constant under-achievement in the Test series, continuing his poor run in this country. He had faced only 13 balls when he chased a wide one from Jimmy Anderson that he should have left. It moved away, took the edge and Matt Prior was left with a simple catch behind.

Sangakkara swished his bat in anger. He was only too well aware of what he had done and that he should not have done it. How could the others be expected not to follow his example? In context, it was as poor a piece of batting as there has been in the series. An over later the rain came in again.

Proceedings were delayed until 12.15pm at the 105th venue to stage a Test match, the 10th in England and third new ground this millennium. It swept in again not long after and by the end of this supposedly historic day more than 10 hours had been lost this season in Test cricket.

Time enough still for England to make serious inroads into the tourists' batting which has failed signally to meet expectations. For the third consecutive match, England's attack, which came into this series with a reputation every bit as vaunted as their opponents' batting, was not as immediately probing as it ought to have been.But it is impossible to argue with the subsequent returns.

It was a rotten day for the fans. Only 10,000 had taken up the opportunity to buy tickets for the inaugural Test at the ground, wretched considering the setting and its significance, and a comment on the state of the longer game. From the evidence of the first three Tests of this summer, it has been plain, as it had been plain for a few years before, that seven Test matches in the season tests the loyalty of supporters. The early-season series has too often been sub-standard and one-sided.

Sri Lanka's past deeds on these shores where Muttiah Muralitharan has bowled them to two victories, might have deserved better box office. But there is no Murali and they give the air of a team in transition, if not chaos. What happens in the medium to long term depends on the England and Wales Cricket Board, its budgets and its broadcasting deals (which are not far off being one and the same thing). By the end of the summer, as has happened before, all this may be forgotten. Back in 2009, a Test match at the Riverside in Durham was played desultorily in Arctic conditions but by the end of the season, England had regained the Ashes and all seemed right with the world. It isn't.

Had groundstaffs not increased in skills, numbers, determination and machinery at their disposal, much more play would have been lost this season. Whole days would have been consigned to history, England would not have had their series lead, obtained at Cardiff, do not forget, when they bowled out Sri Lanka for 82 in 23 overs at the fag end of the fifth day. Fifteen years ago, the match would have been called off before play started on the final afternoon.

That was true of the first day yesterday. If it was a pity that the ground was not full, it was probably a blessing in the circumstances that no special arrangements had been made to mark the advent of Test cricket further south than it had ever been.

In Cardiff two years ago, when Sophia Gardens staged their first Test match, the event was opened with a fanfare that included the voice of Kathryn Jenkins. The match that followed was pretty dull until the climax, but the start made it clear that the city was determined to show that it deserved Test cricket. Perhaps Southampton, sans the voice of an angel, felt it had better let the cricket do the talking. If only.

It took England until the 13th over to make the breakthrough, partly because of untidy bowling, partly because the Sri Lankan opening pair stuck to their task. Having demonstrated initial determination and an enviable technique, however, the 21-year-old debutant, Lahiru Thirimanne pushed at a ball delivered from round the wicket by Anderson. When it then moved away it was far too late to readjust and Andrew Strauss held the catch at first slip.

Rain forced a break almost immediately. In the first over after returning, Tharanga Paranavitana, also a model of rectitude, was beaten by some diabolically late movement from Chris Tremlett to be lbw. Four overs later, Sangakkara made his error and there was another enforced break.

A resumption seemed improbable but the soppers did their work, the sun came out and so did the teams, Sri Lanka with deep reluctance. Tremlett gave Mahela Jayawardene a fearful working over before he could take no more and edged a bouncing ball to Prior's left.

Snakes & Ladders: England's quest to reach top of game

England have fixed their sights on becoming the world's No 1 Test team – and sooner rather than later. Given a good run of results, and a fair wind, they could be crowned by the end of a summer which sees them start against fourth-ranked Sri Lanka and then tackle leaders India. Knowing England, though, their journey from today in third spot is unlikely to be without its ups and downs. Or snakes and ladders. Independent Sport will monitor England's progress on a daily basis throughout the summer's seven Tests.

Snake Rod Bransgrove has devoted 10 years of his life to making yesterday happen. As the rain came down he was rueful but pragmatic: "That's the one thing I can't do anything about," said Hampshire's millionaire chairman, pointing skywards.

Snake Was that an edge England saw before them as they went up for a catch behind against Tharanga Paranavitana? Not according to the world's best umpire, Aleem Dar, or according to the first replays. But hotspot on high definition television showed the dreaded white spot. Out, out damned spot.

Ladder Rain break allowed the eerie fascination of watching Shane Warne's punditry on Sky for the first time this summer. He looks younger now than he did when he bowled that ball to Mike Gatting 18 years ago. Must be the Melbourne climate.

Ladder The Rose Bowl ground staff show themselves up to the task of mopping up. Play began only 75 minutes late when two sessions might have been lost. State of play on the board: England back where they started.

Rose Bowl scoreboard

First Test, The Rose Bowl (first day of five): Sri Lanka have scored 81 for 4 wickets against England; England won toss

Sri Lanka: First Innings

N T Paranavitana lbw b Tremlett 11, 43 balls 0 sixes 1 four

H D R L Thirimanne c Strauss b Anderson 10, 38 balls 0 sixes 0 fours

*K C Sangakkara c Prior b Anderson 2, 14 balls 0 sixes 0 fours

D P M D Jayawardene c Prior b Tremlett 4, 25 balls 0 sixes 0 fours

T T Samaraweera not out 24, 64 balls 0 sixes 4 fours

†H A P W Jayawardene not out 10, 45 balls 0 sixes 1 four

Extras (b2, lb13, w4, nb1) 20

Total (for 4, 26.2 overs) 81

Fall 1-23, 2-23, 3-29, 4-39.

To bat N L T C Perera, U W M B C A Welegedara, H M R K B Herath, C R D Fernando, R A S Lakmal.

Bowling J M Anderson 12-4-18-2, S C J Broad 5.2-1-11-0, C T Tremlett 9-6-8-2.

England *A J Strauss, A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, E J G Morgan, †M J Prior, S C J Broad, G P Swann, C T Tremlett, J M Anderson.

Umpires Aleem Dar (Pak) and R J Tucker (Aus).

TV umpire B R Doctrove (WI).

Match referee A G Hurst (Aus).