Sri Lanka showed some nous and batted their way to a first-innings lead against England at Pallekele on Thursday, condemning the tourists to a long day in the dirt and setting up a potentially thrilling finish to the second Test.
Roshen Silva’s 85 batting at seven and Dimuth Karunaratne’s 63 atop the order formed the spine of the hosts’ most impressive innings of the series so far on a turning pitch that England simply didn’t make the most of.
The first ball of the day had appeared as if it might set the tone for a day of tumbling bails, with Moeen Ali turning a perfect off-break past Karunaratne’s outside edge in a continuation of the sharp spin we saw on day one.
Jack Leach, opening the day from the other end, then jagged one back into the pads of Karunaratne that - after England called for a DRS review - had actually spun too much and was missing leg. Nonetheless, plenty of movement should have meant plenty of promise.
Indeed, when Ali got the wicket of Malinda Pushpakumara in the third over of the day we had already witnessed enough sharp-turning peril in about 15 minutes that the prospect of Sri Lanka hauling themselves close to England’s total seemed rather unlikely.
The tourists’ spinners were licking their lips and yet Sri Lanka eventually passed England’s 285 with considerable ease, the tourists only sporadically bowling well enough to cause problems and enduring long, punishing spells without wickets.
The most painful of those dry patches was the 89 minutes between dismissing nightwatchman Pushpakumara and the pick of the Sri Lankan top order, Karunaratne.
In modern British terms that is long enough for about three cabinet members to resign but for England’s cricketers it was a toiling period of bowlers not finding their lengths and the occasional good ball zipping past the edge untouched.
England were eventually dragged back into this Test match single-handedly by Ben Stokes, literally. First he did it with his right hand as he ran out Karunaratne with a direct hit that he had no right to make, and then with his left, jutting out a quick hand to instinctively take a catch that deflected off Ben Foakes’ glove after Leach had found the edge from Kusal Mendis.
Those two quick wickets before lunch perked England up and Adil Rashid, responsible for some pretty average bowling in the morning, then produced a brilliant spell to open the afternoon session and snicked off Dhananjaya De Silva and Angelo Mathews in quick succession.
But once again England fell into a lull that allowed Sri Lanka to settle. Having done so well to be smart and aggressive with the bat to make the hosts panic, this was surprisingly flat from England and with Roshen Silva accumulating runs quietly the tourists looked a bit lost for answers again.
The last four wickets cost England 171 runs, though all ten came from spin bowlers with Joe Root trapping Niroshan Dickwella in addition to three each for Leach and Rashid.
Root did receive a minor boost to the tune of five runs when Sri Lanka were penalised after Silva was deemed to have deliberately run one short as a ball failed to reach the boundary ropes.
It was a curious interpretation of Law 18.5.1 but one that England might be thankful for if this Test goes down to the wire, as it now looks destined to do.
England’s first innings total is now 290, Sri Lanka’s 336. Jack Leach blocked out one over to finish the day’s play and on Friday the battle will resume.
The tourists must bat all day and set Sri Lanka a competitive target.
Then they will have to make much better use of the turning pitch than they did on Thursday, the first day where Sri Lanka have been clear winners all series.
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