This is a report in two parts – one written 45 minutes before the close, and then, well, you’ll see when I changed the tone a bit. That’s test cricket. Never assume it is going to drift, it has drifted for the previous hour or so. You’d think I’d learn!
It was about fifteen years ago, to get all Ronay on you, that I found myself at Whitgift watching Surrey, I think playing Lancashire. It has been another day when a certain Mark Ramprakash had gorged himself on runs, and some wag, sitting near me uttered the line I remember, and use, to this day. “Ramprakash has carried more passengers this season than London Transport”. If Anderson is the bus network when it comes to the bowling in this test, Joe Root is both the Underground and Southeastern. Eat your heart out Barney!
This test match has emphasised just how really handy it is to have your best player, and since KP was ushered off the scene, Root has been that (yeah, yeah, argue about Stokes, but he just isn’t) in top form. This is seriously brilliant stuff, Cook in India 2012 stuff, where you are surprised he gets into any strife. So far he’s got out trying to hit out with the last man in, and been run out in a moment of supreme idiocy in the abbreviated run chase last time out. He’s look reasonably untroubled (as I start writing this a difficult chance at slip has just been missed) while accumulating, all in the hope someone might stay with him in this mission. He did have a fluent partnership with Buttler, and a dogged one with the impressive Bess (seriously like this guy’s temperament) to steer England out of imminent peril, although disaster looms in all directions. Such is the joy of test cricket.
In that sense the game’s position hasn’t really changed for the action of today. England started it in a position to post a lead, or to subside, and to dominate with a strategic partnership or have a weak (on paper) tail subside quickly. It sort of still sits like that. England lost Bairstow early, Lawrence didn’t last long either, both falling to Embuldeniya, who looks impressive but also ought to be asking questions about worktime directives and overtime with the bowling load he has had to carry. Buttler came in to steady the ship, while Root continued to his 19th test century in his 99th test.
While never totally dominating, it wasn’t a minefield either and both players took England away from the rocky shore of a 200 deficit to calmer waters. Buttler passed his 50, and of course the commentators started on the “how great is he doing now” schtick before our talented one reverse swept a shot straight into his boot and straight up in the air giving Ramesh Mendis his first test wicket. I watched the replays – front on nailed Buttler, but the side on made it look, to me, that it hit the ground then hit the boot, which it didn’t. It was an optical illusion. It was given out out out by the 3rd umpire, and England looked vulnerable. 229 for 5 with a reasonably long tail. A 97 partnership that threatened a lot more, and in truth, we probably needed it.
I muttered to myself “I’ll take a deficit of 70 from here”.
Curran hung about for a while, coinciding with my walk of Teddy over the park to beat the snow. He fell to Embuldeniya, nicking the new ball to slip, and the deficit was still 129. Enter Dom Bess! I remember back when he made his debut at Lord’s that he got to 50 and then appeared sick to be out. He looked similarly peeved at Headingley. I like that. As Root, understandably, visibly tired, playing a few rash shots, looking desperate to reach the close, Bess was solid and kept his wicket.
But as time expired and we passed 5pm local time, and he nicked one to gully. The soft signal was out. The replay made it look, as always, as if it hit the grass then the hand. This was the only shot. Not out. But not to be denied Embuldeniya induced the edge and Bess was nabbed at slip. A vital 81 partnership was broken. Bess went for 32.
Mark Wood went down with all guns blazing, and brains held in suspension when he nicked to slip. Thirimanne pouching his 5th. But in the last over of the day, Root perished. 186. Run out as he hit the ball to short leg, who threw the stumps down before a knackered Root could make his ground. The last half hour saw England lose 3 wickets for 6 runs, and finish the day at 339 for 9.
What can you say about that Joe Root innings? Let’s put some things in perspective, this isn’t a vintage Sri Lankan attack. But this is gruelling work, no England player had made more than 151 in a test innings in Sri Lanka prior to this tour. The 228 was good, very good, but this was better. The 228 rammed home a massive advantage the bowlers had given him. This innings kept England within touching distance. A deficit of 44 is not negligible, but it is not large either. Root struggled at the end. He is our captain, and isn’t new to the role when some skippers seemed to get a boost – he’s very much in the worn down by the role zone others encountered. He looked in very little trouble until he got massively tired and limbs and muscles seized up. To quote the song that the lyric in the title is from, he felt like he was going to sweat until he bleeds. This was an amazing physical and mental effort. I was privileged to watch a fair bit of it.
So having prepared a “game has not changed that much in context” piece from 45 minutes out, now it has a little. Sri Lanka are probably going to have a small lead, worth around 45 minutes of batting time. The third innings will be interesting here, as the home team have to make the running. They will need to take risks to set the game up to give them enough time. The 4th innings is not usually England’s friend when batting out to draw, but maybe more interesting given a teasing total to chase. Embuldiniya will be a major obstacle, turning it away from our predominantly right handed batting order. His 7 wickets in just his third test bodes well (let’s hope he doesn’t become a T20 dart thrower). The wicket will deteriorate. It’s the beauty of test cricket, and why I love it.
Needless to say, England have won a test match and Ed Smith can come out and do a victory lap masquerading as high-performance selection. I might go into this more after this test match, but how can one argue with logic like this…
“We’re not traveling by boat, we don’t go away five months at a time. We need to be more nimble. And if we need to break a tour up so we can get people in and get people out for their good and for England’s good, we’ll do it.”
I mean, you need a Double First to work that one out.
Looking forward to Day 4 which I will not be able to watch as I have to work. Enjoy!
Little Stattage… Last 186 in test matches was made at Galle. Karunaratne in 2015 against the West Indies. 186 is the joint 501st highest score in test history. Two other players have made 186 for England. Paul Collingwood at Lord’s in 2006 (I was there when he brought up his ton) and Kevin Pietersen in Mumbai.
Other Postscripts – 5 overs short. All that spin. Hmmm. We’ve been there before. Also, never met many opposition keepers I liked, they mostly spoke nonsense and bored me senseless. As Michael Vaughan might put it, just saying (with a hashtag).