The debate has been a valid one as any dispassionate analysis of Strauss’ batting form reveals. But even those England fans who had dozed their way through a somnolent second day at the P Sara stadium roused themselves briefly to make their loyalty known. Many had long surrendered to the exhausting April heat which threatened to widen the cracks in a desperately slow pitch but which failed to expose any cracks in England’s set-up.
Strauss ground out 61 from 126 balls to underline what we already knew: when the occasion demands it, he is a tough customer. His stand of 122 in 52 overs with Alastair Cook was England’s second highest of a disastrous winter in which they have reached 300 only once. By the close, England could imagine that consolation was within their grasp. A lot depends when, if at all, this pitch begins to crumble.
Cook’s 77 not out consumed the bulk of the strike – 57% – his only let-off coming on 20 when he turned Herath to short leg where Lahiru Thirimanne almost scooped up the catch. In a dutiful, pared-down innings, his reverse sweep at the left-arm spinner, Rangana Herath, was surely explained by a touch of the sun.
It would be easy to overplay England’s painstaking approach – not much more than two runs an over — as proof of the pressure brought about by four successive Test defeats and a captain whose position is under scrutiny for the first time. If that was the bigger picture, it was the minutiae of the match situation that carried considerably more weight, in particular an inhibiting surface.
Strauss had one or two misadventures against an otherwise innocuous Sri Lanka pace attack in an awkward 15 minutes before lunch. He got off the mark with a fortunate, edged boundary, third ball, as he pushed suspiciously at Suranga Lakmal. He was also inches away from dragging on Dhammika Prasad in the last over before lunch as an attempted cut shot was betrayed by a lack of bounce.
Thereafter, he recognised that the low bounce insisted he should play straight and he did so until a Sri Lanka spinner, on this occasion Tillakaratne Dilshan, finally offered him some width and his late cut fell into the hands of the wicketkeeper, Prasanna Jayawardene. The slow pitch helped him at least twice when edges against Dilshan, two balls before he was dismissed, and, earlier when Herath dived in front of Sri Lanka’s captain, Mahala Jayawardene, at first slip.
For the thousands of England supporters who had stayed on in Colombo for the 2nd Test, it made grim viewing. But it was hard to feel much sympathy for a small minority of spectators who, as they sought a free view of the first Test, had left so much mess on the ramparts of the 16th century Galle Fort, a World Heritage site, that the ECB felt obliged to pay for the clean-up
How appropriate, said one follower of this Test on social media, that England’s first half-century opening partnership of the winter should actually have happened in the spring. It encapsulated the long wait endured by England before Strauss and Cook, one of the most productive opening partnerships in England Test history, whose 14 century stands now put them only one behind Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, finally put together a stand of note. A strikingly large proportion of spectators surrendered to the heat and dozed through it. To England’s relief, the pitch slept too.
Herath lacked the threat he possessed at Galle. A short, stout, slow left-armer, he might have passed for Sri Lanka’s version of Samit Patel. Randiv, who found more turn, bowled his off-spinners in tall and stately fashion, with a delivery stride so restrained that he might have been a head waiter politely approaching a guest’s table to pour the wine.
Sri Lanka, 238 for 6 overnight, scored only 37 runs from 21 overs for the loss of their last four wickets on a somnolent morning as England’s bowlers again summoned a disciplined performance with Graeme Swann, who is enjoying a late flurry of form as England’s winter programme nears its end, taking 3 for 4 in 6.1 overs as his off-spin found plenty of bite.
England were relieved to head to the dressing room and what they hoped, for once, would be a prolonged blast of air-conditioned. Their habit of weighing players at each end of the day revealed that Matt Prior had lost 3.5kgs keeping wicket during the first day’s play because of his exertions in such demanding conditions.
Angelo Mathews, 41 not out overnight, was his most important victim. Mathews, playing as a specialist batsman and restrained in making 41 the previous evening – an out-of-character approach that involved imagining he might smite the ball a great distance and then suppressing his natural instincts at the last moment.
He fell for 57, from 157 balls, clipping a slower off-spinner from Swann to short midwicket. Randiv’s attempts to break the shackles resulted in a catch at deep mid-on by Kevin Pietersen, pedalling back and, when Swann bowled Lakmal second ball, for nought, with one that turned through the gate, he finished with 4 for 75.