Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Victory

That was really quite impressive from England. From what was still a relatively unfavourable position overnight, and the concession of a small, but not irrelevant first innings lead, the tourists dominated day four and finished off the match as evening descended.

There are a few notable takeaways from the match and the series, but perhaps the most striking is that some of those players who had been on the receiving end of the harshest criticism responded well and had a good day. There is ever a call for players not performing to be summarily dropped, and while inevitably over a period it requires them to perform or be replaced, the instant nature of social media precludes the possibility that a player might learn and improve. There is a lack of experience in Asian conditions for obvious reasons, and on top of that players haven’t been able to actually get out on the field much other than in the Tests themselves. Leach and Bess both indicated that they were somewhat rusty, and that they weren’t happy with how they’d bowled in the first Test, but today they were much improved, taking all the Sri Lankan wickets between them and Joe Root, who chimed in with a couple at the end.

This doesn’t mean for a second that they are now the finished article, nor that they’ll perform well in India, but they have shown improvement in what are alien conditions. Both bowled extremely well today.

The same applies to Sibley, who had struggled badly in his first three innings of the series but took England home today with a measured and generally secure unbeaten half century. In his interview after the game he mentioned he had been working on various technical aspects and it will please everyone that in this innings it seems to have paid off. Few of England’s newer batsmen have much if any experience of Asian batting conditions generally, and there are no warm-ups to try and develop, it all has to be done in the nets or in their heads. When sledged by Dickwalla as to whether he would be opening in India, Sibley replied “I don’t know, I haven’t had a very good series” which is charming, disarming, and indicates a person extremely aware of not having done particular well up to that point. Again, it doesn’t mean he is nailed on to perform in India, but it does mean he’s working extremely hard to find a way of making runs. He is learning, they are learning. Zak Crawley’s innings was brief, but it too showed signs of him searching for a method that would work for him.

The captain will be important for this process – he fell cheaply in the run chase today, but his innings yesterday was more than good, it was sublime – one of those where a player appears to be operating on a different plane to everyone else. That provides a standard for others to aspire to, and shows that it’s possible to succeed. England might be considerable underdogs for the India series, but this tour of Sri Lanka has given the players an opportunity to prepare themselves for what they will face. It is not unreasonable to say that England’s chances now are better than they were a fortnight ago, it’s just that those chances remain comparatively slim. Of course, there will be significant changes to the team anyway, with the return of Burns, Arches and Stokes, and in those cases they will be coming in cold, while the loss of Jonny Bairstow is a pity, given that he did reasonably well in Galle.

As for Sri Lanka, they were faced with what is a common challenge in a close Test, that of the 3rd innings, where all the pressure goes onto the batting side who can lose the game in an afternoon, and they did. The batting was both reckless and excessively casual, and once again the curious psychology of a batting collapse took hold, whereby players will be sitting in the changing room wondering quite why their decision-making was so poor.

If an incentive were needed, it’s that England have closed the gap on Australia in the World Test Championship to half a per cent. They remain in 4th, but given the series coming up, they have the chance to change that. It’s a huge ask of them, but in any competition the most you can hope for is the chance to be in control of your own destiny. It’s therefore timely that today the ECB confirmed a two Test series against New Zealand in early summer. It would be ironic if that were to serve as a warm up for a final between the same two sides immediately afterwards.

SL vs England: 2nd Test, day one

A day of hard work for the bowlers, and something of a grind throughout. Shorn of the first Test scenario where the home team had an unadulterated nightmare, we had instead one of setting up the game and providing what should be a more interesting day two. It’s always a truth of Test cricket that the first day of an even encounter leaves everyone unsure of what to make of it, it’s both the beauty of the format and the bane of anyone trying to say anything vaguely interesting about it. But that shouldn’t be a negative, for a Test match unfolds, and the unspectacular setting up lends more to the intrigue. At the end of day one in the first Test, we had a fair idea of the likely outcome. At the end of this day, we don’t have much idea. What a pleasure that is.

What might be said is that in these first two Tests Anderson and Broad have shown that their nous in Sri Lankan conditions has been quite evident, and perhaps is a good sign for the Indian tour. Bowlers with exceptional longevity often seem to develop in unfriendly cricketing environments, and while it’s far too much to ask of bowlers of this nature to run through an opponent, the skill on show can’t be denied by any but the most churlish. There is something special about the wily old fox coming towards the end of a career trying to outwit the batsmen, something that only Test cricket can really provide. As a child, the same experience was had watching the great Richard Hadlee, running in and bowling at a modest pace but it being abundantly clear the batsmen – the English batsmen at least – were struggling to cope with him. The records of Anderson and Broad overseas have been questioned often enough, and there’s no doubt that they are more effective at home, though this in itself isn’t a particularly unusual thing. But places like India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are never going to be their ideal conditions, any more than a spinner finds England their favourite haunt. A few do manage it, and that’s why they are amongst the very greatest of a given era, but it should not be a stick with which to beat a player that they aren’t quite the threat in some countries as they are in their own. With the notable exception of in India, over the last five years Anderson has a pretty strong record away from home, an indication of how he’s developed in the latter part of his career. Today, he was exceptional and led the attack throughout. As for the England spinners, they were much improved from the first Test, albeit without the same level of success. Both had pointed to a lack of match practice as a reason for their inability to maintain the degree of control expected of them last week, and while people may or may not accept that, there is a case that they should be granted the same degree of understanding that a batsman without many games should be.

Angelo Mathews is one of those players who seems to fly below the radar when discussions are had about the leading batsmen, but his record is good enough to be exceeded by only a handful over the last decade. It sometimes seems as though he particularly enjoys scoring runs against England, but the statistics suggest as much as anything a degree of consistency in all conditions. Either way, he was the centrepiece of a vastly improved batting display that leaves Sri Lanka with at least the potential for getting into a strong position. Since it’s so much better than the first Test, that’s all that was required at this stage. Dinesh Chandimal provided ample support, but the lower order are going to need to contribute to turn a reasonable position into a good one.

The media coverage is providing an interesting insight into both the shortcomings and merits of the normal cricketing circus. The commentary works well generally, though watching television pictures removes the wider context of seeing what is going on – Jonathan Agnew’s mildly embarrassing episode of commentating on a replay being one instance, Ian Ward not realising an umpire had given a player out another. But while commentators being at home is palpably obvious at times, in general it is acceptable. It’s not quite as unusual as might be thought, there are broadcasters in other sports who are happy to allow the listener to believe the commentator is in the stands when in reality they are in a broom cupboard watching a television feed. What’s notable in that instance, and perhaps it can only be the case with radio, is that few are aware of the fact.

Where there might be an issue for the media in future is with the written press. Unable to go to Sri Lanka, they too are confined to watching the television, and then writing up what they had seen. For a newspaper, the considerable savings on flights and hotels must offer a temptation to make the current enforced policy an optional one. There will undoubtedly be howls of protest that not being present will deny them access to the players or to question, and that’s true enough. But there are local options and pool feeds of which to make use. The damn virus is going to make a lot of changes for the future, and there must be a possibility that this will be one.

SL v England: 1st Test, Day Two

There are a few things different about this match in these Covid times. The lack of any media coverage at the ground hasn’t especially impacted the commentary, although being reliant on TV pictures means they miss things they’d otherwise see, but it doesn’t take long to forget they are all in their pyjamas at home. One thing that is very much absent is the repeated social media posts about how amazing their press box meals are, which is no bad thing. Nor is their realisation that getting up in the middle of the night to watch the cricket is an experience the rest of us are very much used to. It never stops being amusing to see them experience how the lesser half lives.

As for the game, well England could hardly be more on top. Sri Lanka’s abysmal first innings has probably lost them the game on the first day, a reminder to those who needed it that you can’t win the game on the first day with the bat, but you can lose it.

The hosts took only two wickets all day, Jonny Bairstow for 47 and Dan Lawrence for 73, a fine debut knock before being undone by one of the few deliveries that spat off the pitch. Initial strong scores are not remotely indicative of a good Test career, but they are equally much better than failing to get any, so he will be pleased and he looked the part. More than that can’t be said.

But the day was dominated by Joe Root. He’s had plenty of criticism for failing to turn his fifties into hundreds, but when he gets to three figures, he goes on to make a big one half of the time. It’s a curious anomaly in his career, and perhaps indicates that he’s thinking about his conversion stats and relaxes somewhat when he reaches his century. Either way, the only means of overcoming it is to do it more often, which sits nicely in the “easier said than done” category. Yet he averages 49 and so much of the debate surrounding him focuses on what he doesn’t do rather than what he does. He’s far from the first to suffer from this, indeed all those in recent times for England who have had averages just shy of 50 have gone through it to varying degrees, either with excuses made, or unfair criticism. Either way, it avoids a more rational examination of their strengths and weaknesses. For anyone over the age of 40, an England batsman averaging nearly 50 is a rare beast indeed, and one to be cherished.

As for where the game goes from here, it’s moved on apace but we’ve only had two days, which is why it’s always puzzling to see some already starting to push for England to declare. There’s not remotely any need for it, they can bat the whole of tomorrow if they are capable of it without having a shred of effect on any risk of failing to win, short of the kind of biblical downpours that shouldn’t be factored in at this stage.

Which doesn’t make it very interesting, except in terms of seeing how the individuals go. Even if Sri Lanka have a miracle session, they are so far adrift as to be almost beyond the horizon. That’s Test cricket, and we should never apologise for the one sided games when the format has the potential for thrillers. What would be more of a concern is if this is how the whole series goes, though it’s hard to believe Sri Lanka will bat quite as badly again as they did yesterday. The differential in income around the world is an ongoing subject, but can’t be used as a justification for the abject shot selection that placed them in these dire straits. It is a separate, but valid matter to a team playing well below their capabilities, irrespective of the difference in resources.

Despite the immense time remaining, England’s scoring rate of nearly three and a half an over it’s entirely possible this game will conclude tomorrow. At a time when any cricket is good cricket, it’s not to be sniffed at, but everyone will hope for something more competitive in the Test to follow.