The match is not over. England’s bowlers – excellent as ever – fought back with five wickets in the evening session but a first innings deficit of 125 should prove decisive on a surface that is expected to deteriorate. Sri Lanka had stretched that lead to 209 by the close despite a four-wicket haul from Graeme Swann. But, bearing in mind England were dismissed for under 200 four times in the UAE and they have never made more than 253 at Galle, it becomes apparent that Sri Lanka have established an overwhelmingly dominant position.
England’s old troubles against spin came back to haunt them once again as they were bowled out for 193. Rangana Herath, a tidy left-arm spinner, tore through the tourists’ top order with six for 74, while off-spinner Suraj Randiv claimed two for 26. It meant Sri Lanka’s spinners had claimed eight for 100 between them and had earned their side a first innings lead of 125. While England avoided the ignominy of following-on – a distinct possibly when they were 92 for 6 – they still have a mountain to climb if they are to avoid their fourth successive Test defeat. On a pitch that is expected to deteriorate, conceding a first innings lead of such magnitude should prove decisive.
While in the UAE England came up against a top spinner with a bag full of tricks, here there were no such excuses. Herath is a worthy cricketer, certainly, but he offers none of the mystery of Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal. Herath gained little turn, bowled at a gentle pace with modest variations and received only grudging assistance from the surface. For much of the time it was, to borrow an expression from the political world, like being savaged by a dead sheep.
Yet it still proved too much for England. Perhaps mentally disturbed by their experiences in the UAE, several batsmen missed straight balls or played back when they should have been forward.
There were exceptions. Ian Bell, the one specialist batsman to offer any meaningful resistance, was bowled by a beauty that drew him forward, turned and clipped the top of off stump.
But generally, England will reflect that they surrendered their wickets rather too cheaply. Andrew Strauss missed a sweep to a non-turning half-volley, Jonathan Trott came down the pitch and missed with a horrible swipe across the line and Matt Prior, squared up and back when he should have been forward, gave the ball time to turn and trap him on the back leg.
Samit Patel’s maiden Test innings ended when he, again back when he should have been forward, missed an arm ball and Stuart Broad’s counterattack was ended when he missed another sweep. The sight of Trott, flat on his back with his wicket broken after he came off second best in a clash with Sri Lanka’s wicketkeeper, Prasanna Jayawardene, as he struggled to regain his ground summed up the balance of power.
Herath was well supported by Sri Lanka’s seamers, too. Alastair Cook was trapped on the crease by a fine delivery that nipped back from Suranga Lakmal, while Kevin Pietersen played-on off the inside edge as he tried to push at a good length ball from Chanaka Welegedara, bowling around the wicket.
Bell, at least, offered a glimpse of hope for England. Adopting a positive approach, he timed the ball beautifully and had the confidence to hit over the top when the opportunity allowed. He contributed more runs in this innings than he had in the whole Test tour of the UAE.
He enjoyed one moment of fortune. Sweeping the off-spin of Suraj Randiv on 41, he hit the ball hard but straight at the short-leg fielder who deflected it back to the wicketkeeper; Bell survived as the ball had hit the fielder’s protective helmet.
England’s tailenders also put the pitch – and the bowling – in perspective. Broad thumped 28 out of a seventh-wicket stand of 30, launching into a series of pulls, cuts and drives off Lakmal, while James Anderson, Graeme Swann and even Monty Panesar also put the efforts of the top order to shame. The ease with which Anderson drove, swept and even reverse swept boundaries spoke volumes not just for his improvement as a batsmen but the failure of his top-order colleagues to take advantage of a blameless pitch and a worthy but hardly fearsome attack.
Earlier Anderson claimed his first five-wicket haul in a Test in Asian conditions as England dismissed Sri Lanka for 318 early on the second day. It took only 6.3 overs for England to claim the two wickets they required to finish off the Sri Lankan innings. Anderson claimed them both, producing a well disguised off-cutter that crept through the sizeable gap between Chanaka Welegedara’s bat and pad before Mahela Jayawardene’s superb effort was ended by a fine delivery in the channel outside off stump that held its line and took the edge of the bat. Anderson finished with 5 for 72; the 12th five-wicket haul of his Test career and his third outside England.