There were three central themes to today’s batting performance by England: No one batting in the right position, sweep shots and terrible reviews.
The first of these was in large part caused by England’s 16th opener since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, Jack Leach. Selected for his lack of ability at batting, he had survived the single over he had to face the night before. Showing the kind of longevity most England openers in recent years have demonstrated, he got himself out for just one run having only faced four more deliveries. Missing a wild sweep, Leach was struck plumb in front of the stumps and was given out LBW.
This brought out England’s new number three, Keaton Jennings. Perhaps helped by the fact that Sri Lanka’s only seamer wasn’t facing him, he and Burns actually formed a useful partnership and added 73 runs before Jennings was dismissed gloving an attempted reverse sweep to slip.
At this point, most people expected Ben Stokes to bat next. He batted at three in the first innings, so it was surely his turn? As it turns out, Root is so comfortable batting at four that he still does it even if a nightwatchman messes up the order. Rory Burns continued his rapid accumulation of runs, making his maiden Test fifty at almost a-run-a-ball, before being given out LBW attempting a sweep shot. Unfortunately, Burns (with his captain’s full support) reviewed what appears to have been a contender for plumbest LBW decision in the history of Test cricket, utterly wasting a precious review.
Ben Stokes clearly didn’t take being demoted from three to five particularly well, because he was dismissed second ball in a very similar manner to Burns. Sweep shot, given out LBW, and wasting England’s second review. The tourists were in the familiar position of 109-4, although this time it did include a nightwatchman.
Root and Buttler continued playing aggressively and added another 74 runs until Jos Buttler jumped outside off stump to play a reverse sweep and the delivery from Akila Dananjaya spun behind him and he could only edge the ball onto the stumps. This brought Moeen to the crease as England’s number seven, and he hit his second ball for six. Unfortunately for him, and as heavily foreshadowed earlier in this post, he was soon given out LBW whilst sweeping despite the impact being clearly outside the line of the stumps. Unfortunately Burns and Stokes had already used up both of England’s appeals, so he had to go.
Moeen’s bad luck brought Ben Foakes to the crease, and together with Root they pushed England towards a total which might trouble Sri Lanka, particularly on this pitch. The ball had spun with variable bounce throughout the day, and it was starting to get very tricky to bat on. Root managed to get his century just after Tea, his first century away from home since the 2016 Test series in India, with a glance through the vacant third man region. Eventually, like the six players before him, Root’s innings ended with a sweep. This one was a reverse sweep which he missed, and was struck plumb in front of middle stump.
Sam Curran, England’s saviour in the first innings, came out to bat but left just as quickly as he was bowled first ball by Karunaratne. The Surrey allrounder could at least take solace in the fact that he was the first England batsman in this innings to not get out sweeping, and he played a back foot defensive shot inside the line to a ball which spun away from him and flicked his off stump.
Rashid was next in, and next out fairly quickly. He, like Moeen before him, was somewhat unlucky to be given out. Although struck in front of the wickets on the pads, he had managed to swing his bat down in time and edge it, but the umpire clearly thought otherwise and he was incorrectly given out.
Rashid was Akila Danajaya’s sixth wicket of the innings. Two of these were mistakes by the umpires, but even so it’s clear that the Sri Lankan offspinner has been a vital part of the host’s attack. It does stick in the craw somewhat that he has been cited for a ‘suspect bowling action’ but is still allowed to play in Test matches. One of the more frustrating facets of cricket for me is that punishments for offences almost always occur after the game. It is entirely possible for a player to cheat against one team, affecting the result in his team’s favour, and then be suspended against another team. In Tests it’s annoying, in competitions it’s downright unfair. I wish cricket was able to develop a quicker (or perhaps more severe) form of disciplinary action which actively prevented this delayed form of punishment.
Foakes and Anderson added another 19 runs before bad light ended play about an hour early. This gave England a lead of 278 which is, at the very least, a difficult target for a team to reach in the fourth innings on a spinning pitch. England’s tactics of batting aggressively and using the sweep very frequently seemed to have paid off, perhaps because it played to their strengths. No one thinks that England’s batsmen are capable of surviving for a day and a half on a spinning pitch, but they do have several useful limited overs players who are capable of getting quick-fire fifties on one. It’s not a perfect tactic, and can be vulnerable to collapses with low totals, but it is perhaps the best one this team has at its disposal.
So the day ends with the game yet again in the balance. If England’s bowlers play like they did in the first Test, they will almost certainly win. If they bowl like they did in the first innings, then things might be a bit closer. Either way, it should be interesting.
As always, if you have any comments about the game or anything else, please post them below.