Trying to predict the weather in Sri Lanka is a fool’s errand, and it seems to have caught most English observers out yet again. With a torrential downpour yesterday and rain expected through most of today, it was certainly a surprise to me when I woke up at 6am and discovered I’d missed most of the first session. Less of a surprise was the fact that England had already lost 3 wickets.
The game began on time, England picking their expected XI with Leach, Burns and Foakes replacing Broad, Cook and Bairstow. Joe Root also won the toss again for the 6th game in a row, and decided to bat first. With early indications that the pitch will be conducive to spin, I think it was the better option for England to deny Sri Lanka’s bowlers the 4th innings.
England’s batsmen were woefully under-prepared for this game, and unfortunately it showed. The touring team had only scheduled a couple of two-day warmup games, and due to the poor weather only batted 140 overs in total. Despite England’s notorious weakness against spin, it was Sri Lankan seamer Suranga Lakmal who made the initial breakthroughs in the third over. Debutant Burns was the first to fall with a fine leg-side edge to the keeper, and he was followed immediately by Moeen Ali who was bowled by a full, straight ball from around the wicket.
What followed was a bizarrely aggressive first session from England’s batsmen. I had seen it suggested on Twitter (font of all knowledge) before the game that the English batsmen should pretend they were playing limited overs cricket, a format they excel at even against spin, rather than attempting to defend and getting out cheaply. Trevor Bayliss has certainly stated several times that he prefers ‘aggressive’ batsmen in Tests. England scored 113 in the morning session at 3.9 runs per over, which is a good start but for one minor detail. They had also lost five wickets.
The three dismissals were all examples of over-aggression from England. First there was Root, who yorked himself by running down the track to an innocuous ball from Herath. Next was Jennings, who was bowled after missing an attempted cut to a ball heading straight at middle stump. Last, but by no means least, Stokes got himself out by going outside off stump whilst attempting to sweep the ball to fine leg and instead being bowled behind his legs. All of these shot selections would be fine in a T20, but seem utterly nonsensical in a Test match. You have to wonder what Trevor Bayliss and England’s batting coach (Is it still Mark Ramprakash? I can’t believe he hasn’t been fired yet) think about this display.
The afternoon session followed the typical script of England’s lower order rescuing their specialist batsmen. This time it was wicketkeepers Buttler and Foakes showing the top order how to bat, adding an extra 51 runs at a relatively sedate pace of 3.4 runs per over. Unfortunately for England, Buttler edged a ball from Perera to the keeper just before the drinks break, bringing in England’s inexperienced ‘tail’.
I use the quotation marks because England’s tail seems like their best batsmen. In fact, from the start of the summer England’s top five average 2.17 less than the bottom six. There’s a genuine argument to be made for reversing the batting order. Sam Curran outperformed the specialist batsmen yet again, scoring 48 runs including three sixes before edging one from Dananjaya to slip. Adil Rashid then added a quick-fire 35, including another two sixes, before also edging to slip. Jack Leach made it through to the end of play with a somewhat lucky 14 runs, surviving two edges through the slip cordon.
And throughout all of this was Ben Foakes, the second Surrey debutant and England’s new wicketkeeper. He came to the crease in the first session when the score was 105-5 and guided England to 321-8 at the close of play. It would be difficult to overstate how important his innings was in terms of the tourist’s chances of winning this game. He was calm and composed, and most importantly didn’t get himself out.
At the same time, his batting abilities shouldn’t be a surprise to us. Although regarded as a specialist wicketkeeper, Foakes has a first-class batting average of 40.64. That’s more than Jennings (33.95), Malan (36.98), Stoneman (35.03), Vince (38.44), Westley (36.31), Hameed (30.91) and Duckett (38.69). In fact, the only two batting debutants in recent years to have higher first-class averages than Foakes are fellow Surrey players Ollie Pope and Rory Burns. Now this might suggest that the Oval has been pretty batting-friendly in recent years, which is fair, but you have to question why it’s taken so long to get him in the team. Jonny Bairstow wants to be England’s Test wicketkeeper, and I can’t say I know how Foakes’ outfielding stands up, but there has to be a way for them (and Buttler if need be) to fit in the team? Surely as an alternative to picking Vince ever again…
So the day finishes with England in a position which is not bad. Sri Lanka in some ways let them off the hook with defensive fields and poor fielding, but you have to give credit once more for England’s bowlers and Ben Foakes for bailing out the team. It’s now set up for England’s bowlers to put some pressure on Sri Lanka with the ball tomorrow.
If they’re not too tired from carrying England’s batting unit all the time, of course.