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.
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