World Cup Matches 44 & 45: Sri Lanka vs India, Australia vs South Africa (and a bit of TV, FTA and the ICC)

And so we arrive at the end of the group stage, and more by luck than judgement, there is even a little bit to play for in the last two games. Not in terms of qualification though, after Pakistan’s always likely to be vain attempt to gatecrash the top four ended in victory, but not by enough, against Bangladesh.

Thus, it’s merely the order of the top four that is in question, and the incentive, such as it is, of who plays whom in the semi-finals. The most likely outcome is that Australia will play New Zealand at Old Trafford, and that India will play England, once again at Edgbaston. It’s probable that India and Australia would prefer to play New Zealand, both because of their recent stumbles, and also because England are unquestionably a side everyone else fears somewhat, even if they would certainly feel they can be beaten. But it’s hard to see beyond victories for both the Big Three members playing tomorrow, and that the semi-finalists includes them plus England is unsurprising, if somewhat depressing. But then, the whole structure of cricket at a global level is intended to allow them to maximise their income and power, so it is exactly as desired in the corridors of power. In most sports, an unexpected outcome in a tournament is something to be celebrated, only cricket responds by trying to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Today Sky Sports announced that if England reach the World Cup final, it will be broadcast free to air. At present it isn’t quite clear what “free to air” would mean, but it appears highly unlikely it will be via a mainstream channel with a large reach. This isn’t so surprising, there are other major sporting events on the same day, such as the men’s Wimbledon final and the British Grand Prix (another outstanding piece of scheduling for cricket), and clearing the decks for six hours of cricket at short notice is somewhat impractical, albeit it would be amusing to see the response if a main broadcaster expressed interest in doing so. What seems more likely is for it to be on something like Sky Mix, or even online via Youtube or Sky’s own app and website – the BT approach to screening the Champions League final.

Such an initiative is to be welcomed, but the focus and pressure on Sky to allow it to be shown free rather lets the ICC specifically, and the ECB more generally given this tournament isn’t in their purview, off the hook. The World Cup is behind a paywall because the policy of the ICC, as instructed by its members, was to maximise revenue in their TV contracts. The moment that was the intention, pay TV was always going to be the only outcome. The principal contract for England, India and Australia is held by Star Sports, who paid $2 billion back in 2014 for the rights to ICC tournaments up to 2023. It was for them to then sub-contract to national broadcasters and, naturally as a business, to maximise their revenue accordingly. Everything stems from that, the drive for revenue at every stage, and the reason why such tournaments not only won’t be on free to air, but effectively can’t be.

This isn’t Sky’s fault, they too are a business trying to make money, but it is the ICC’s for making the financial aspect the key one. To suggest, as some notable employees of Sky have done, that this is down to the free to air broadcasters failing to bid is a specious argument – they simply cannot financially compete on the same level as pay TV, and see little point in spending money preparing bids, or even considering preparing bids, for something they cannot win. It almost certainly is the case that the kind of wall to wall coverage required is now only in the purview of the satellite broadcasters here, but it’s still a matter of justifying the status quo by pretending that the creation of this situation is entirely separate from the bidding processes in the current market.

Where it does get more interesting is in the argument as to whether some cricket on free to air would benefit Sky themselves. This is one of those that only those inside broadcasting (we’re outside that too) can answer, but holding expensive rights to a sport in major decline cannot be a healthy financial position for them either, even if the fear in the future is that cricket sinks so far that Sky will be able to buy all the rights for a song as no one else cares. It seems unlikely this will happen for as long as there is more than one pay TV broadcaster, for cricket is a boon for them, filling lots of screen time for comparatively little cost compared to, say, drama. In any case, to say no one else cares about cricket is a weak defence. Firstly, the single positive of the Hundred, that there will be some shown on the BBC, implies otherwise to at least some extent, but more than that, if more cricket is of no interest to the terrestrial broadcasters, it’s because cricket isn’t of sufficient interest to them. But it was, at one point. And now it isn’t. For the ECB to have failed to nurture their broadcast partnerships over the last 15 years has been an abrogation of their responsibilities to the game. At another time, a World Cup the majority were unable to watch would have provoked howls of outrage. Now it is largely indifference whether they can or they can’t, and limited awareness that it’s even on.

Equally, there is the wider argument about the role of the various governing bodies. It is simply wrong to argue that all the ICC can possibly do is sell the contracts to make as much money as possible, because it isn’t what other sports do at all. Wimbledon could certainly make far more from selling off their event to the highest bidder, but refuse to because they value the exposure they get on the BBC. More pertinently, World Rugby, for their own showcase World Cup, specifically talk about finding free to air partners. Indeed, their wording is very precise:

“Securing deals with major free-to-air broadcasters who are passionate about sport is central to World Rugby’s mission to make rugby accessible in a global context. With each Rugby World Cup we are broadening the sport’s reach and appeal through a broadcast and digital strategy that is aimed at reaching, engaging and inspiring new audiences within existing and emerging rugby markets.”

This is completely alien to the approach taken by cricket, to the point that it is diametrically opposed in almost every clause in that paragraph. Very few people are so single minded as to believe that everything should be on free to air, irrespective of contract value, and given World Rugby’s activities and attitudes in other areas, it’s hardly that they can be held up as notable supporters of the common man and woman in every aspect. But it is a striking difference in strategy, to intend the widest possible audience for their blue riband event.

It is highly noticeable that Sky appear to feel they are on the defensive about this whole subject. It’s not necessarily why they’ve made the decision to offer the final conditionally free, but also how some of their staff appear to be spending considerable time messaging cricket supporters and blogs with impassioned defences of their position. It’s a different approach, certainly, and perhaps not a coordinated one, but the righteous indignation, when it isn’t even them who are bearing the brunt of the annoyance, is interesting.

What the viewing figures might be for any final, broadcast for free, with England in it will be interesting. It really isn’t just the free aspect either – buried away on a minor channel that only subscribers are aware exists is not going to cause a dramatic change, although in a perfect scenario, a very tight, exciting final might just allow word of mouth to spread, and for non-adherents of the game to seek it out.

For this is a positive, without any question. How big a positive is more debatable. If the stars were to align, then just maybe it could grab attention, even with all the competition. This is what every cricket fan surely wants.

One other small item. It’s been reported that the other counties are displeased with Warwickshire for offering guaranteed contracts with the Birmingham Phoenix franchise in an effort to lure them to the county. This is the kind of esoteric, obscure item that barely anyone notices, but has a big impact. For the Hundred franchises are meant to be entirely separate to the counties. But what did the other counties expect? That this would be adhered to? That it wasn’t really going to go down the route of concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the chosen ones? We get accused of being cynical too often, but to not see this coming is extraordinarily naive on the part of those upset by it. It’s more likely to have been a deliberate strategic approach by a governing body that has long disliked having 18 counties to deal with.

Update: the article concerning the recruitment for the Hundred has been pulled, and according to George Dobell, a retraction sought. Curioser and curioser.

Comments as ever below.

World Cup Match 11 – Pakistan vs Sri Lanka

The weather forecast is grim. Truly grim. The chances of any kind of game today look minimal, with a sheet of rain across the south, and a venue that tends to be wet even when the rest of the country is dry.

It’s inevitable of course, and will cause some of the usual suspects to recoil in horror that there is such a thing as rain, but it probably doesn’t do too much harm to either side in the scheme of things given the format.

Yesterday’s game between Australia and the West Indies represented something of a triumph for the Aussies who recovered from 38-4, and indicated that they really are a threat to anyone this time around, without being quite convincing. It was the umpiring that caused the most discussion, Chris Gayle being given out wrongly twice, before a third slightly marginal lbw that should have been a free hit given the huge missed no ball the ball before.

It was poor, but umpires have bad games too, and the West Indies only got into the World Cup on the back of an umpiring error in the first place. Still, there will be two officials who will be unhappy with their own performances alright, even if blaming the umpires is an age old tactic.

Comments on the rain below.

World Cup Matches 8 and 9 – India v South Africa & Bangladesh v New Zealand

So enter the giants. Bring on the gladiators. Bow down to the titans. India belatedly join the “party that is gripping a nation”, and in front of them is a team that if it loses, might as well ensure they are on that flight to Johannesburg prior to July 14. The stakes are high.

You’ll be thankful that this isn’t a 1000 word epic. There are two games scheduled for 5th of June, and India are on first in Southampton. Highly favoured, they won’t be overly concerned that they have had to wait, or really what they’ve seen from their opponents. Their’s will be a more intense campaign, but not that much. A tournament where there is still four weeks of the qualifying competition to run allows such indulgences like waiting a week to start!

The second game puts together two unbeaten teams up against each other. Bangladesh return to the scene of their triumph on Sunday with a hope to repeat the formula. New Zealand blew Sri Lanka away on a lovely green surface in Cardiff and look a formidable unit. While you have to favour the Black Caps, Bangladesh aren’t to be taken for granted. One of my favourite cricketers, Mushfiqur Rahim, is always a key man for the Tigers, and his lovely knock on Sunday got a little overshadowed by Shakib, but was utterly valuable (going to a country like Bangladesh makes me want them to do well. I loved my time there). By all reports their fans were brilliant on Sunday and brought a great sense of occasion to the match. Good on them.

The match between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan was the first one that was weather affected, and yet there was still a pretty gripping contest (due to disruption in London, I had to work from home, but I’m not going to watch cricket, sadly, if I have to work – honestly). Sri Lanka got off to a great start, collapsed in a heap, eked out something competitive, and then Afghanistan got off to a half decent start, collapsed in a heap, rebuilt a little, but then fell short. The bowling attack may sneak them a game during the tournament, but the batting looked a little short for Afghanistan today. They are by no means outclassed. I am watching the highlights and what a really good comms team they had on today. Doull, Smith, Mitchell, Sanga and even Pommie was OK today too. Nothing pants on fire enthusiasm, no screaming and hollering, just adult commentators treating their audience as adults. It will never catch on.

As we have seven games under our belt we have two hundreds. One suspects India might add to that total today. Let’s see if they are for real. South Africa are in turmoil, and it will be a huge upset if they win. It is especially sad, though sadly not unexpected, to see Dale Steyn won’t be playing a part. I saw him in his first series back in 2004/5, and he had an action and pace to die for. He’s been an amazing player, but time stands still for no-one, not even a warrior like Dale Steyn. It’s terribly disappointing.

Comments below.

Hey, it’s Test cricket. Remember me?

The unlikely is the heart of sport and the currency by which it sucks in new adherents, how it grabs hold of a child and retains them for life. All those who love Test cricket can remember the match that first got them well and truly hooked on the sport, and in cricket’s case, it really is Tests that do that more than any other format, even now.

Sri Lanka’s extraordinary victory today over South Africa has had social media ablaze, trending across different countries not involved in the series, but reaching those who care greatly, and beyond them to the casual viewer who will see that and wonder what the fuss is all about.

A Test that in this country at least was at the margins of niche interest exploded into the realms of fascination as an unlikely run chase sank towards failure; just another game and another defeat for a nation struggling against almost all opposition. No one told Kusal Perera, who responded with one of those once in a lifetime performances to snatch an utterly extraordinary victory, with the unlikely assistance of Vishwa Fernando at the end in an unbroken last wicket partnership of 78. And for cricket fans all around the world, a relatively low key Test match became required viewing as word went around that something incredible was happening.

The details barely matter, there are plenty of match reports to read through to vicariously experience the whole thing once again. But the sensation of witnessing something amazing in any sporting contest cannot be beaten, while in Test cricket the unique tension as it unfolds is something that can’t be replicated in many other arenas. The long form that so many suppose is the problem is precisely why even those without a dog in the fight feel their heart thumping in their chest and experience the gnawing tension that grows with every ball. The possibility of something epic, the fear that any second it might be snatched away, the drawn, pinched expressions on the faces of players for whom realisation is dawning that defeat and despair may be coming.

And this is why those who are responsible for the game, who denigrate Test cricket rather than embrace it, are loathed and despised by the strange obsessives who continue to proselytise that this form of the game is the one. Whether it be Edgbaston 2005 or Durban 2019; or even Barbados 1999 when Brian Lara finished with the same score as Kusal Perera in another acutely stressful finish, Test cricket can produce sheer magic, a degree of intensity that few sports can match.

If Test cricket is in trouble, it also falls to those of us who love it to tell everyone else why. If the governing bodies won’t do it, then someone else has to. It doesn’t compensate, it doesn’t begin to make up the shortfall, but in a small way, it helps a little.

And yes, this is an exceptional example. But most sports have their routine outcomes, we watch because of the unexpected, because of the amazing. Because hitting Dale Steyn into the stands in a T20 is routine, but doing so in a thrilling Test match with one wicket standing raises the hairs on the back of the neck.

Because it matters. Because it’s a Test match. And because it is utterly bloody wonderful.

There are highlights on Sky at 6pm this evening. If you missed it, do watch if you can.

Sri Lanka vs England, 2nd Test: Victory

That England took the last three wickets to fall relatively quickly is not so surprising, that England have taken the series reasonably comfortably perhaps is. Sri Lanka certainly aren’t the side they were, and have a better justification for the usual excuse for defeat (“rebuilding”) than most do, but it remains a difficult place to go, as South Africa found to their cost only a few months ago.

England haven’t won an away series of any description for three years, and haven’t won in Asia/UAE for six, so there should be a recognition that this is a meritorious achievement. Perhaps most strikingly, they did so through their spinners, Leach, Rashid and Moeen all performing well, and perhaps surprising a few people. Nasser Hussain won a series as captain there, and observed afterwards that by creating pitches exceptionally conducive to turn, the hosts brought England’s more limited slow bowlers into the game – it may be that the same error has been made here again.

Certainly Leach has come out of the series to date with credit, but Moeen Ali for one has also to some degree answered those who maintained his away record was too poor for consideration. It’s just two Tests of course, and doesn’t alter what went before, but nor can it be ignored when he does do well. As for Adil Rashid, he remains a potent weapon, and if perhaps a luxury at times, that’s what wicket takers often are.

Perhaps the difference most of all was to be found in Joe Root’s century, as is often the case when a standout player raises himself to levels others cannot match. Pietersen did that in Colombo on a previous tour, appearing to be playing a different level to everyone else, and if not quite so startling this time, Root certainly showed he is a player of rare ability. There has been too much focus on his failure to convert fifties into hundreds and too little on his ability in the first place in recent times, a batsman being held responsible for the failures of others.

As for the openers, they have performed creditably enough. In neither case can they be said to have permanently cemented themselves, but equally neither has the Cook of the last few years been missed. In a match where it has been so spin friendly that England’s seamers failed to take a single wicket, to come out on top having made contributions counts as a win on more than one level.

England have endless problems off the field, but at times on it they simply deserve credit. This is one of those. A fine win, and a better series win.

Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Day Four

The whole period between October and December passes in something of a blur for me, a succession of work trips and meetings meaning that opening the front door is vaguely reminiscent of greeting a long lost relative you kind of recognise. Thus it was that plans to wake up early to watch a Test match failed utterly – late to sleep, late to rise and the persistent nagging question as to whether it’s possible to suffer jetlag on a flight back from Belfast.

Day one of this Test happened without realising it, day two similar, day three, yep you’ve got it, and day four was more a case of “oh yes, there’s cricket on. Actually this looks quite a good game”. At such times, with obliviousness concerning the actual game, a fall back to general awareness seems to be the best approach, namely that a target of 300 is a very stiff one, and that in such circumstances the chances are that there’ll be a decent stab at it, before wickets start to fall and the batting side ultimately fall short after a “crucial” wicket falls some time deep into the run chase.

For Test matches do follow a pattern. Not in the same way that ODIs or especially T20s do, where the formula is repeated each time with little variance, but more an echo of the several thousand games over a century and a half, with certain tropes to be followed and specific truths to be obeyed. The other part of this is that the wider public insist on refusing to see the evidence before their eyes and taking an entirely different view of what is going on.

Thus it is that 300+ targets are considered not just achievable (which they obviously are) but not too much more than a walk in the park. To point out that 300 has been chased a mere thirty times in Test cricket over a couple of thousand matches is met with surprise, bordering on disbelief. Now, of course the nature of the game is that fourth innings run chases aren’t a given in a game, while setting or achieving lower targets takes out another bundle, and then there are the dull draws, the games where it rains throughout (and not just in Manchester) and where teams batter another by an innings, so it isn’t quite such a small proportion, but it is somewhat rare. The persistence with which 300 is considered eminently gettable remains one of the odder cricketing beliefs out there.

There are other contradictions to the perceived wisdom held – Moeen Ali taking wickets out here appears to be taking fans’ cognitive dissonance to a whole new level – but it remains endlessly striking that the desperation for a wicket with 120 runs to get coincides so often with that wicket falling. Today, the unlucky man was Angelo Mathews, the latest player to fulfil his role as the “if only” candidate of a run chase.

75 runs to get, 3 wickets to fall. This is the kind of scenario where people set the alarms in anticipation of a thriller, only to see two wickets fall in the first over, or to watch the rain fall for three hours while contemplating the lost comforts of a duvet. And yet, once in a while that thriller happens, just enough to ensure everyone thinks they don’t want to miss it, while at the back of the mind the nagging certainty that it’s going to be a waste of time keeps sticking up a hand and telling the viewer not to bother. And that is quite a special attraction, to know that it could just be worth it.

I’m not going to get up early to watch the denouement. Oh I might. Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll oversleep. Oh who knows? But it’s fun when it gets like this anyway. See you tomorrow. Possibly.

Sri Lanka v England, 2nd Test Day 3 – Sweeps

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.

Sri Lanka v England,2nd Test Day 1

England were on a high coming into this game, and named an unchanged side from the first Test. The only minor alteration was Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali swapping places in the batting order. In terms of helping England’s top order batting order, this move very much echoes the saying “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”, as I don’t see how it will make any difference at all. Sri Lanka were forced into changes by Herath’s retirement and their captain Chandimal’s injury in the first game. Off-spinner Malinda Pushpakumara and batsman Roshen Silva were brought into the host’s team, with bowler Suranga Lakmal.

Crucially, England won the toss. Reports from the Sri Lankan camp had suggested that the team had ordered a spin-friendly pitch from the groundsmen, and England would have been desperate not to bat fourth on it. Luckily for them, Joe Root is a fantastic tosser. He won his seventh consecutive coin toss, and obviously elected to bat first.

Whilst it didn’t seem like a minefield, the spinning conditions on day one always suggested that most English batsmen would struggle. Jennings was first to go this time, hanging his bat outside off stump to Sri Lanka’s only seam bowler (and stand-in captain), Lakmal, and edging it to the wicketkeeper in just the fifth over. Jennings’ weakness against seam bowling (at the very least at the Test level) seems totally bizarre for an English opener. If England are looking to innovate their batting lineup, perhaps they can start with moving him to the middle order?

All eyes were on Stokes, who had been promoted to number three in the batting lineup. He never looked particularly comfortable on a spinning pitch, and he was soon undone by Perera, who spun the ball away from the left-hander and into the pads plumb in front of off stump. Scoring only 19, this was hardly an unqualified success for the England’s team latest ‘innovation’.

This brought captain Joe Root to the middle, although again not for long. Just a few months ago, people were complaining that he scored too many fifties and not enough hundreds. Root has passed fifty just twice in twelve innings since the start of the India series this summer, and today’s wicket was perhaps an indication of why. England’s captain played a forward defensive to off-spinner Pushpakumara, but was bowled through a gap between bat and pad. The whole point of the forward defensive shot is to eliminate the risk on the inside edge, so something has clearly gone wrong with his technique there…

Whilst all of this was happening at the other end, Rory Burns was slowly accumulating runs. This came to an end just before Lunch when Akila Dananjaya, the Sri Lankan off-spinner who was reported for a suspect action in the previous Test match, spun one away from England’s opener who edged the ball to slip. Buttler and Moeen hung on until Lunch, but England were left in the familiar position of being four wickets down at the break.

Moeen’s form, which had already seen him drop three places in the batting lineup, showed little sign of improving as he was dismissed shortly after Lunch. He was squared up by Pushpakumara as he tried to glance the ball into the leg side and was hit right in front of his leg stump.

Foakes and Buttler were scoring quickly until both fell in quick succession. First to go was Foakes, who was dismissed caught behind despite replays showing he never touched the ball. He went for a sweep and the ball hit both of his pads before being caught by slip, but crucially never hit the bat. England had two replays available, so clearly he must have thought he had hit it. Buttler’s dismissal was equally embarrassing, with England’s number five (it’s so hard to keep track of players’ batting positions now) skewing a mis-hit reverse sweep to backward point. I’m not a traditionalist, I’m perfectly fine with Test players playing reverse sweeps, scoops, etc… but the thing I didn’t like about it was he wasn’t playing that particular shot well today. He generally seemed to get nothing or perhaps a single every time he tried a reverse sweep, so I wish he had left it in his locker to use another day.

So England were in the familiar position of having too few runs for too many wickets, 171-7 to be exact, and needing the tailenders to bail them out again. With Buttler and Foakes already gone, there wasn’t much batting talent left. There was Sam Curran though, who played an absolute blinder. His three partnerships with Rashid, Leach and Anderson added another 114 runs to England’s total, with the Surrey allrounder scoring 67 of them himself. The stand-out partnership was the last one with Anderson which added another 60 runs, with Curran facing 82% of the deliveries and clearly doing a great job of farming the strike and extending the innings. Eventually he lost his wicket with a slog to long off, but it was a job well done.

285 is not, in most environments, a particularly good first innings score in Test cricket. The adage that you should wait until both teams bat before judging a total seems particularly apt on this ground. England’s early dismissal meant that the Sri Lankans had 12 overs left to face in the day, and after the initial spell of swing from Anderson and Curran passed came the spinners. Moeen and in particular Leach caused the Sri Lankan batsmen all sorts of problems with exaggerated spin and bounce off the pitch. It was the Somerset left-handed bowler who made the only breakthrough of the session, bowling Kaushal Silva past the batsman’s outside edge with a beautiful legspinner.

England will feel fairly happy after today’s play. Their tail once again pushed the total up to a point which puts some semblance of pressure on the Sri Lankans, and their unusually competent spin attack is obviously capable of getting them a lead at the halfway point in these conditions. Having won the toss and chosen to bat first on a pitch which seems likely to deteriorate fairly rapidly, they’re probably favourites to win this game now.

As always, feel free to comment on the day, or anything else, below.

Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test Day 4 – Drops

There was another downpour overnight, to the point where many people thought that overs would be lost, and yet again play started on time and was uninterrupted throughout. It seems genuinely remarkable that we’ve had four full days of play, given the weather in the area.

The day began with Sri Lanka’s openers still at the crease from the night before. They both made it through the initial spell of seam bowling from Anderson and Curran with no incidents before Moeen and Leach began. Moeen created the first clear chance of the innings, drawing an edge from Karunaratne to first slip, which the usually safe hands of Ben Stokes spilled.

Immediately after the first drinks break, Leach pinned Kaushal Silva in front of the stumps to take the first wicket. Moeen took a wicket soon after when Karunaratne attempted to loft the ball over the mid-off but instead hit it straight back to the bowler

The two spinners challenged both Sri Lankan batsmen, but it wasn’t until Stokes was brought in to bowl just before Lunch that England finally took another wicket. De Silva prodded at a ball just outside the off stump and edged it to Joe Root at slip.

Stokes continued bowling after Lunch with a great session of short-pitch bowling considering the slow pitch. With several edges, gloves and mis-hits falling safe, the best chance from the spell came when Mathews pulled the ball straight at Jimmy Anderson who was fielding at midwicket. In the first instance of catching karma, Stokes’ earlier drop was punished by the normally safe hands of Anderson instead not hanging on to the ball.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan batsmen continued to bat in a bizarrely aggressive fashion considering the benign conditions and their position in the game. In just the next over, Kusal Mendis sliced a lofted drive from Leach’s bowling to Moeen Ali at mid-off. In the over after that, Jimmy Anderson suffered his own catching karma as the typically flawless Foakes dropped an inside edge from an inswinger which fooled Chandimal. Inside edges are often the trickiest ones to catch for wicketkeepers, but Foakes did get his hand to it so it has to be regarded as a missed chance. The Sri Lankans didn’t show any inclination to punish England for these mistakes in the field though, and Leach bowled Chandimal a few overs later with a beautiful delivery which pitched on middle and hit the right-hander’s off stump.

This left Angelo Mathews and wicketkeeper Dickwella as the two remaining batsmen for Sri Lanka before the tail, and Moeen Ali dispatched both in his first two overs after the Tea break. First to go was Dickwella, who edged one to slip  where Stokes made no mistake this time. Mathews followed soon after being surprised when the ball spun and bounced, scooping the ball gently to Jos Buttler at mid-on.

With just tailenders remaining, the rest of the Sri Lanka innings felt like a slow crawl towards an inevitable defeat. Rashid was brought on to clean up the tail, which is usually a speciality of his, but was much looser and more frequently off-target than he was in the first innings. Moeen Ali continued at the other end and eventually drew another edge to Stokes at slip, this time from Dananjaya. Rashid took almost a mirror-image wicket soon after with Perera edging a loose drive to slip. Herath’s was the last wicket to fall, with an undignified run-out for the retiring Sri Lankan hero.

Whilst it is England’s first Test win at Galle, this might not be quite the achievement it first appears. For a start, they have only played there five times and lost just twice . Second, and perhaps this indicates Sri Lanka’s recent weakness, the last eight Tests at the ground have been won by the team which also won the toss.

More importantly for English fans, it’s the Test team’s first away win since October 2016 and only their fifth since the beginning of 2013. England are a long way from being even a competent side away from home, their top order being their most obvious flaw, but the bowling unit appears strong in these conditions and the lower order batting continues to rescue the team on a semi-regular basis. With just two games left to play, there’s reason to be hopeful that the tourists can win their first away Test series since South Africa in 2015/16.

England’s biggest problem going into the next week’s Test is perhaps that too many of today’s team performed well. Bairstow should be eligible for selection again after his football injury, but it’s difficult to see Bayliss and Root dropping Foakes after the debutant wicketkeeper was named Player Of The Match. There are also suggestions that the pitch at Kandy will be more conducive to pace bowling, but should they drop one of the spinners when they did so well as a unit in this game? It’s a dilemma for the management team, with no clear answers.

If you have anything to say about the game, the squad, or anything else that comes to mind, please comment below.

Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test Day 3 – Consistency

Today’s play was so similar to England’s efforts on the first day that I was sorely tempted just to copy and paste my report from Tuesday with a few minor changes. The same players prospered, with the exception of Ben Stokes, and the same players struggled.

The day began with openers Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings at the crease on 38-0 . Like in their first innings, Jennings was by far the more comfortable of the two. Having survived a close LBW shout, Burns threw away his wicket again attempting a suicidal single to mid-off. Moeen’s top order struggles continued a few overs later with a chip straight to mid-on. Herath got Root out again, although this time with a good ball which moved away from the bat and caught the edge, and England were in the same position as Tuesday of being 74-3.

This brought the partnership of Jennings and Ben Stokes. Where Stokes had thrown his wicket away with an attempted sweep outside the line in the first innings, he was somewhat more circumspect this time around and was happy to run singles at the start. Jennings was lucky to survive an LBW shout just before Lunch where the ball hit the pad and bat (in that order), but the Sri Lankans decided not to ask for a review which would have dismissed the batsman.

Jennings and Stokes continued batting through the afternoon session with the allrounder accelerating throughout until he played inside the line to a Perera spinner which hit the top of off stump. Buttler came in and kept things moving briskly with a quick 35 runs before offering a sharp catch to Kaushal Silva at silly point. He was followed by Ben Foakes, who went even quicker with 37 runs from 35 balls before holing out at deep square leg. This dismissal drops Foakes’ average from a Bradmanesque 107.00 to a still-respectable 72.00, but it was a selfless innings from the debutant in the circumstances. Sam Curran came out for one more ball, but Joe Root declared at the end of the over with a lead of 461 runs.

And through the whole day, Keaton Jennings accumulated runs. Aside from the LBW scare, it was another accomplished innings from the opener. I must confess that I was hoping he would be dropped for this series after being very unimpressed with his batting during this past summer. It has been noted that he did well in India, so perhaps he is just well suited to Asian pitch conditions? It’s difficult to otherwise explain how he averages 17.72 in England but 71.80 in India and Sri Lanka. Conversely, his partner Rory Burns (according to CricViz) struggles against off-spin in county cricket. With grounds in the West Indies sometimes helping spinners, by the time England prepare for the Ashes it’s possible that Jennings will be undroppable and Burns unpickable. This could be a big problem if English conditions and a pace attack play into Burns’ strengths and Jennings’ weaknesses.

England’s declaration left Sri Lanka with 7 overs to survive, and their openers duly obliged. Curran, Anderson, Moeen, Rashid and Leach all had an over or two each to try for a breakthrough, with the only excitement being a close stumping chance from Ben Foakes and a bat-pad from Leach’s bowling which didn’t go to hand. There were a few aborted runs between the two batsmen though, which they will presumably have to discuss sometime tonight. Sri Lanka need another 447 runs to win, or to survive 6 sessions (barring rain). Dare I say it, I think England might win this one…

As always, your comments on the game (or anything else) are welcome below.