For the first time in this series, the England team are under real pressure. Overnight, the position of the game was very much in the balance. Sri Lanka had only lost four wickets, but England had restricted their scoring to just 229 runs. When two wickets fell in the first five overs this morning, including centurion Angelo Matthews, that should have swung the games decisively in England’s favour. Instead, a lot of innocuous bowling from England allowed Sri Lanka to bat through to Tea and set a challenging first innings total of 381.
Jimmy Anderson and Mark Wood bowled well, and claimed nine wickets in this innings between them. At this point in Anderson’s career, every wicket is becoming something of a milestone. With another three wickets today, including the crucial one of Matthews, his 6-40 marks his best ever bowling performance away from home. At 38 years old, he is the oldest pace bowler to take a five wicket haul in Asia. (SF Barnes holds the overall record for fast bowlers, and Anderson need to keeps going for another two and a half years to challenge that one) He extended his lead as the pace bowler with the most wickets in the history of Test cricket, and is now just thirteen wickets short of overtaking Anil Kumble and becoming the third highest wicket-taker overall (including spinners). To watch Anderson bowl now is to watch history in the making. Even in conditions where there is little swing, little seam, and little pace, Anderson gets the job done. He can’t work miracles, and perhaps a few Sri Lankans will blame themselves for their shot selections against him, but his line and length is so awkward that any attempt to score is fraught with risk.
The only other England bowler threatening to take wickets through the day was Mark Wood. His extra pace and bounce clearly discomfited the Sri Lankan batsmen, drawing edges and aerial shots whilst taking another two wickets today. He’s been unlucky so far in this series, and has more than demonstrated his worth as a strike bowler in batting-friendly conditions. Not as good as Anderson, but then who is?
The other three bowlers, Sam Curran, Jack Leach, and Dom Bess, were just poor. Curran seemed to bowl a lot of bouncers, perhaps trying to emulate Neil Wagner’s technique, but he lacked the New Zealander’s control and he was the least economical of England’s attack. He did at least manage to take a wicket though, with a mis-timed hook being caught on the boundary. England’s two spin bowlers, Jack Leach and Dom Bess, bowled a combined sixty-four overs without anything to show for it. Aside from a dropped caught-and-bowled chance to Bess and an inconclusive edge from Leach’s bowling, neither even looked remotely like dismissing a Sri Lankan batsman. This should be a huge worry for England. These two are expected to carry the weight of the England attack in Asia, not least to spare the workloads of the pace bowlers. Both Anderson and Wood bowled more overs than Bess in this innings, and that simply shouldn’t happen.
England’s options to replace either spin bowler aren’t great either. Moeen Ali, the only other spinner in England’s ‘main’ squad hasn’t played in a single first-class game since 2019 due to being in England’s white ball team last summer. There are an additional three reserves currently on tour with the team in Sri Lanka and India: Matt Parkinson, Mason Crane and Amar Virdi. Parkinson didn’t play any first-class matches last year either whilst Crane has a career first-class bowling average of 45.16. That leaves off spinner Virdi as perhaps the ‘strongest’ option of the three on paper, a 22 year-old with promise but not much experience. If Bess and Leach are hit out of the attack by India, England really don’t have any depth behind them to cover.
Rory Burns has missed this series because he wanted to be home with his wife when his first baby was born. Much of the talk before the first Test was about whether he might replace Dom Sibley or Zak Crawley when he returned for the India series. There’s always a risk when players voluntarily skip tours that the stand-ins given a chance in their place might take the opportunity and keep them out of the side permanently. Fortunately for Burns’ job security, if not England’s batting, neither young opener has pressed their case so far as both fell cheaply yet again in the first few overs today. With batting averages of 2.00 and 7.33 respectively this series, some people have begun to suggest that neither Sibley nor Crawley should be selected in India. That would be harsh, as this is both batsmen’s first time in Asia and they might learn from the experience. On the other hand, international cricket is a harsh game sometimes and England’s best chance of winning Tests in India might not involve either opener.
Yorkshiremen Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root settled the ship for England, as they did in the first Test, and both made it to the close of play (after surviving a couple of close LBW calls). They are England’s two top runscorers in the series and, along with debutant Dan Lawrence, the only ones of the batting unit to look comfortable against the Sri Lankan attack. That makes Ed Smith’s decision to rest Bairstow for the next two Tests somewhat awkward, although understandable. England cricketers playing in all three formats definitely need time away from the England camp, especially when restrictive ‘bubbles’ are in pace. With a T20 World Cup in India this coming October, it would also be foolish to deny English players like Bairstow the opportunity to play T20Is in the country a few months beforehand or to force them to skip the IPL for their rest. His batting will be missed in Chennai though, not least because he is one of the most experienced batsmen in Asian conditions in the squad.
England finished the day on 98/2, 283 runs behind the hosts. If the first day’s winner was ambiguous, today’s wasn’t: Sri Lanka are in a great position. They punished England’s lax bowling and have put the tourists in a position where a couple of mistakes could turn this game into a thrashing. England need their middle order to bat very well tomorrow to keep their hopes of a 2-0 series win alive.
As always, please comment on the game or anything else below.
One other selection problem this performance brings up–but in a good way–is how to juggle doing OK in India with seeing who the replacement for Anderson will be outside England. That would ideally mean that Woakes should be in the side for several of the India games, since still no-one has much idea if he’s any good south of the English Channel. (I would presume that Curran has bowled himself out of the Ashes squad in these two games, and anyone thinking that he can be England’s Wagner might have a look at a speed gun).
Re the rotation policy–it seems strange to me that Buttler is going home after the first test and not the second, especially since Pope is clearly still uncertain about diving on his shoulder. They’re going to look pretty stupid if Foakes breaks a finger in the nets the day before the first test and they have to go into the series with a debutant keeper who doesn’t keep for his county red-ball side.
Buttler will presumably be back for the T20Is and IPL after the Tests. It is also odd that you would make him fly to India and (presumably) play in the first Test when you could have rested him for all four Tests and given him an extra two weeks’ break.
I’m sure all these selection chopping and changes (horses for courses) are needed for the various forms of cricket, and endless tours, but it just smacks to me of a sport thats unsure of what its identity is, and what is important? Everything seems to be about something for the future, other than the match in hand.
Pity the poor fan who pays through TV subscription (the only paying fan at the moment) for pick and mix teams. The days of picking your best team seem long gone. I find it difficult to take it seriously. And difficult to buy into any connection with the team.
Mason Crane, wasn’t he the bizarre pick for the last ashes down under ahead of Rashid? Didn’t England only use him in the last test match long after the Ashes had gone?
If you take Anderson and Broad out of the England team (not very long away unless they are still playing at forty) and also Root, what are you left with? Stokes, Bairstow. Archer? Other than that, very average. Probably one of the most average Test England teams in history.
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They’ll do okay at home still, I think. There’s a plethora of seam and swing bowlers who thrive with a Dukes ball in England, and virtually all touring batsmen struggle against the sustained movement we get here. They’ll struggle away, but that’s the case now. In the last four years, England are 16-7 at home but 8-9 away. Take Root, Anderson & Broad away, that just gets worse.
Crane is a mystery. I guess they like something about his technique, or there’s some ‘data’ suggesting he’d do well against international batsmen. The only thing I can point to is that he took 14 wickets at an average of 13.57 in the Bob Willis Trophy last season. Even so, his first-class average remains 45.16, which seems massively too high for an international bowler.
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England’s entire strategy for the last six years has been to shore up home series at all costs. Overseas Ashes and Indian tours have increasingly been written off by the media. Even 4&5-0 series defeats are now deemed acceptable.
The good news for England is that outside of India and Australia so many test sides are now very poor. I expect this to be the norm for the future as 20/20 becomes more dominant. Shame, but there is little that can be done. It’s what people want.
As to Crane, I think he was a Shane Warne selection on Sky . After bamboozling England batsman for years he now does the same to the England selectors. LOL
Crane will now bowl out India and win the series for England.
I wonder if the selectors are picking Crane based on one good summer in Sydney grade cricket.
If the ECB want to consider in full why Rashid isn’t incredibly keen on returning to red-ball cricket, the picking of Crane based on one season of grade cricket might be a good place to start.
James Whittaker really was a disaster area as a selector!
Yeah. That was part of a period where British Asian spinners were picked to play in Asia whilst white spinners were picked for everywhere else. So Rashid and Patel played in the UAE, Rashid and Ansari (and Batty) in Bangladesh and India, Dawson in South Africa and Crane in Australia. There seemed at least an unconscious thought that players of Asian descent would perform better in Asia than South Africa or Australia, despite having the same level of experience in the conditions as any English spinner.
That’s a very interesting theory but I don’t think it’s borne out by the facts.
Dawson didn’t tour SA with the test squad–he played against them, but in England. Patel did go, but Whittaker pretty much said at the time that he would have picked Rashid but for the fact that he wasn’t likely to actually play a test (the ECB decided that his general development would be better served by playing in the BBL than carrying drinks in SA). And Ansari would very probably have been picked if he’d been fit.
I think the Crane selection was just Whittaker’s general dunderheadedness as a selector…although there seemed to be a fair bit of anti-Rashid sentiment around the team at that point, which I wonder whether has ever really left the test team: for example, whether Root has ever really got over Rashid missing Yorks’ last match in 2016.
Root is on a streak!
Shameful! You wouldn’t expect that from a married man…
Looks like Embuldeniya has just as much support as Anderson in the first innings.
Also, other than Root England batsmen really have not done much, with a slight exception for Buttler, and Bess (but Bess was not exactly that impactful in his primary role).