Having spent five long sessions in the field in sweltering Galle as Sri Lanka racked up a very solid looking 381, England were given two and a half hours of batting to begin building their response.
England’s spinners, Jack Leach and Dim Bess, had bowled 64 overs between them without even really looking like taking a wicket. They had not been particularly expensive, with their economy a tick over three, but England needed their seamers – led by the immense Jimmy Anderson, whose figures of six for 40 were his best in Asia – to take all 10 wickets. All 10 wickets falling to seam in Sri Lanka had not happened since England did it in 2001, with the wickets shared by Darren Gough, Andy Caddick and Craig White.
Well, it took Lasith Embuldeniya, Sri Lanka’s tall left-arm spinner just 19 balls to pick up two wickets. He had dismissed England’s openers six times in six innings for six single-figure scores, with those six dismissals coming from 55 balls at a cost of just eight runs.
Even then, the returns of Dom Sibley (4, 2, 0) and Zak Crawley (9, 8, 5) were diminishing. Their dismissals have been of no consistent type, either. Sibley was plumb lbw hanging back when he need not have been, and took a review with him. Crawley was squared up a touch and caught at slip. Rory Burns is returning for the India tour and will surely come in; it feels increasingly like he will have to replace Sibley.
Sri Lanka had taken a huge stride forward in a game that had been tight throughout the first innings. The pitch no longer looked quite as flat. The ball was turning in a way that it simply had not for England’s spinners.
England were grateful for their two senior batsmen, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, who came together to begin the rebuild in trying circumstances at five for two. They put on 114 in the opening Test, with Root taking the lead. By stumps this time, the stand was 93, and 67 of them were Root’s, from just 77 balls.
It was typical of the Yorkshire pair, who have played together for so long, with strong running and pressure-easing boundaries. They swept plenty when the off-spinners bowled over the wicket and, when they went round, Bairstow boshed down the ground for four more. In the course of taking 14 from an an Embuldeniya over – with boundaries swept, reverse-swept, and cut – Root overtook Geoffrey Boycott to move sixth on England’s all-time leading Test runscorers list. Bairstow, who survived a tight lbw review from Perera, was quite happy to settle in his slipstream.
Anderson took three of England’s four wickets on the opening day, and three more on Saturday, on as lifeless a pitch as a seamer could hope to find. He maintained his Scrooge-like economy, recording final figures of 29-13-40-6. It was his second five-wicket haul in Asia – the other also came at Galle, nine years ago. He now has 66 wickets in Asia at an average of 29 and an economy of 2.6. He really is a marvel.
What’s more, Anderson picked up the big wickets as England kept Sri Lanka on a leash. In the second over of the day, he had the centurion Angelo Mathews caught behind with a faint spike on DRS (with the review coming just as much for lbw as caught behind). Mark Wood had the debutant Ramesh Mendis caught brilliantly by the diving Jos Buttler down the legside a couple of overs later, and england were right on top.
But Niroshan Dickwella counter-attacked with Dilruwan Perera and by lunch, England needed Anderson back in the attack. He duly delivered the wicket of Dickwella, who miscued to mid-off eight shy of a maiden century, then Suranga Lakmal, caught at gully in the same over, Anderson’s 200th wicket away from home. Dickwella’s had been a sparkling little innings.
When Anderson went off, Perera managed to hustle 39 more with only Embuldeniya – who was well caught at first slip by Root off Wood – last man Asitha Fernando for company. Perera was the 10th wicket to fall, caught in the deep off Sam Curran for a very enterprising 67.
England’s senior players had kept England in the game with the ball, and the same would be true with the bat.