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Not bad. Not bad at all, England.
For a side that have lost the first Test match in five out of their last six multi-match series, ending day one of this one against Sri Lanka just eight behind the hosts who were bowled out for 135 with eight wickets intact, 2021 might just be a new leaf. Joe Root (66 not out) and Jonny Bairstow (47*), 110 between them, have already ticked off the best third-wicket partnership for England in 11 innings at Galle. Should they continue in similar fashion on Friday, and others follow their lead, they won’t need a second innings.
On a pitch where you historically need to bat sooner rather than later because of how it crumbles, England began their first innings after tea, four-and-a-half hours after Sri Lanka won the toss and elected to bat. Having triumphed here in four days in the 2018 series, they are on course to repeat the trick in three.
But before we get too far ahead, breaking out the bunting and clearing a space for the urn, it’s worth contextualising what we saw on day one. And crediting Sri Lanka for their own demise with a “no patience, just vibes” approach to Test batting. Michael Atherton, who captained England during the ‘90s, described it as one of the worst collective performances he has ever witnessed.
There are some mitigating factors. Confidence is low, fresh from a shellacking in South Africa where they picked up a spate of injuries. They came into Thursday without experienced seamer Suranga Lakmal, allrounder Dhananjaya de Silva and batsman Oshada Fernando. Their XI was further weakened in the morning when captain Dimuth Karunaratne was ruled out with a broken thumb – the only batsman in any kind of form having scored a 10th century just nine days ago.
Not that Dom Bess was complaining. The off-spinner profited handsomely off a succession of blunders like a Tory party donor to claim his second five-wicket haul.
Bowlers swallow the days when things don’t go their way despite their best efforts, hoping cricket’s equilibrium helps them out down the line. And it was hard not to think this was the rainbow for Bess after 10 previous Tests on unhelpful surfaces.
Kusal Perera reverse-swept his second ball into the hands of Root at first slip. Niroshan Dickwella cut a long-hop, the first delivery after drinks, to backward point. Dasun Shanaka slog-swept into the heel of Bairstow for an easy catch to Jos Buttler. Dilruwan Perera was bowled going for an eye-watering drive. Wanindu Hasaranga was bowled going for an eye-bleeding reverse sweep. Just like that, Bess had five for 30. Not only should he get a lottery ticket but, on this form, he could probably win by picking letters.
Beyond the empty stands, with the Fort pristine and green with a smattering of onlookers and fewer flags, this was as typical Galle as you could get. Surface-disturbing turn was on offer as early as the 12th over, along with energy-sapping humidity and heaviness under foot. Conditions that make a seamer’s work arduous and unrewarding. There’s a reason Sri Lanka push for this ground for the opening Test of any series with non-subcontinent opposition. That both matches in this series are taking place here to ensure greater consistency around Covid-19 protocols was supposed to play into their hands.
England were even able to flip the script on pace bowling through Stuart Broad, who was the standout bowler on the field if not in the scorebook. Preferred to James Anderson, with the experienced pair likely to tag in and out for one another across the next couple of months in Sri Lanka and India, his three for 20 was earned through his own effort and nous.
A well-placed leg gully saw Lahiru Thirimanne caught around the corner, then a brisk leg cutter found the edge of Kusal Mendis, dismissed for his fourth duck in a row. Then, having pinned down Angelo Mathews with some straight deliveries after lunch, offered enough width to coax a slash through to Root at first slip. He only needed to send down 12 overs, but still managed to equal his tally from the previous 82 he’s had to get through across three previous tours.
There was also the heartening sight of Jack Leach in England whites for the first time since November 2019. Illness kept him out of action for the 2020 tour of South Africa, dropping him down the pecking order for the bio-secure summer. For a moment it seemed he would not get into the act when debutant Dan Lawrence dropped an easy catch off stand-in captain Dinesh Chandimal, who had 22 at the time, which would have had Sri Lanka four down at lunch.
Luckily for Leach, Chandimal did not learn from the error, hitting to the same area where Sam Curran was able to do what Lawrence could not and hold on. The Somerset spinner was also credited with a run out, getting a finger on a drive from Hasaranga that caught nonstriker Lasith Embuldeniya well short of his ground.
Embuldeniya would be solely responsibly for the little joy Sri Lanka managed to eke out in the evening session. The left-arm spinner worked over both openers from around the wicket: turning one past Dom Sibley to clip an edge to Thirimanne and then combining more favourably with Hasaranga who took a good catch at mid off after Zak Crawley’s botched attempt to clear the infield.
That was as good as it got for the hosts, compounded by an LBW of Root on 20 which was overturned upon review. Somehow, the round-arm of Embuldeniya was predicted to bounce over the top of middle stump. Sri Lanka’s coach Mickey Arthur, shorts as short as his patience, was shocked. Root went on to become the first to pass 30 in the match, followed by Bairstow who was fresh after icing his ankle after his assist for Shanaka’s dismissal.
A 50th half-century for the captain, from 94 deliveries, was the bow on a perfect day for England. He’ll be looking to tick that back down to 49 by pushing his century count up to 18. After going without a three-figure score in 2020, the nimble feet and serene hands have him well placed for one in 2021 at the first attempt.