Jayawardene, unbeaten on 168 at stumps, batted for all but two overs of a hot and humid day to ensure his side were not completely overwhelmed. None of his colleagues more than 27 and between them, they contributed just 111.
Both sides will reflect on a day of missed opportunities. While England – with the notable exception of Monty Panesar – were highly impressive in the field, Sri Lanka may well come to rue that a series of batsmen played a part in their own downfall. Two of them were run-out, one was caught at cover as he attempted a slog-sweep that reeked of inexperience and at least one more was drawn into driving at a delivery he would have been better served leaving well alone. England applied the pressure expertly, but Sri Lanka proved more brittle than expected.
England, meanwhile, will regret four missed chances off Jayawardene – the two from Panesar almost comical – and a failure to finish off the innings much earlier. At 191 for 7, a total of 300 should have proved beyond Sri Lanka. Such profligacy could come back to haunt England.
If it does, it will be largely thanks to Jayawardene. Only seven men have scored more than his 30 Test centuries, but he would have been frustrated at his colleagues’ failure to take advantage of winning the toss. It should have proved invaluable: on a pitch that is already offering a surprising amount of assistance for the spinners and is expected to deteriorate further.
Jayawardene deserved better. With his patience, his shot selection, his concentration and his technique, he provided the perfect example for his teammates to follow. Three times he came down the wicket to thump sixes over long-on – once off James Anderson and twice off Graeme Swann – though generally he contented himself with waiting for the poor ball and putting it away with clinical precision.
England did allow him four moments of fortune, however. When he had 64, Anderson was unable to cling on to a desperately tough chance at first slip off the bowling of Swann (Sri Lanka would have been 138 for six had it been taken) before, on 90, Anderson missed a much more straightforward chance off his own bowling.
Then came two moments of vintage Panesar. Jayawardene, on 147, pulled directly to him at backward square and Panesar parried the ball for four. Worse was to follow. Panesar then dropped a much simpler chance at mid-on off Stuart Broad when the batsman had 152. It provided a reminder of why Panesar, for all his skill as a bowler, has spent so much of his career on the outskirts of the international team.
At first it appeared Sri Lanka might be blown away as they lost three wickets in the first four overs. Lahiru Thirimanne became Anderson’s 250th Test wicket in the bowler’s 67th Test – he is just the sixth England bowler to reach the milestone – as he prodded at one angled across him, before Sangakkara suffered the third first-ball dismissal of his Test career after he was drawn into a loose drive. Broad then took the edge of Tillakaratne Dilshan’s bat with a beauty that bounced and left him off the seam.
Thilan Samaraweera was run out backing up after the bowler, Anderson, managed to lay a hand on a fierce return drive from Mahela Jayawardene only to see the ball deflect on to the stumps at the bowler’s end. It was, some might say, an unfortunate end to a promising innings, though Samaraweera was backing up unnecessarily far.
Dinesh Chandimal, meanwhile, presented Samit Patel – preferred to Ravi Bopara (whose side strain would have prohibited him from bowling) or Tim Bresnan – with a maiden Test wicket as he miscued an ugly slog-sweep to cover and miscued to cover. It was the shot of a young man who had almost forgotten the art of batting for long periods of time; not surprising, perhaps, when you consider that he has not batted in first-class cricket since the first week of January.
Then Suraj Randiv, looking quite comfortable and with a role to fulfil in supporting his captain, was run out by a direct hit from Andrew Strauss. It was a marvellous bit of work from England’s captain, who threw from about point, but it was another piece of sloppy cricket from a Sri Lankan side that has barely had time to draw breath after tours to South Africa, Australia and then Bangladesh. Not that Randiv, perhaps guilty of over enthusiasm, could use that excuse: he has been playing first-class cricket in Sri Lanka.
With Herath, too, departing to an unnecessary sweep, only Prasanna Jayawardene could consider himself blameless. He fell victim to a wicked reverse-swinging inducker from the immaculate Anderson.
There were concerns that England would miss a third quick, but the polished performance of their frontline bowlers – and the fragility of the Sri Lankan batting – suggested the selectors’ gamble had been vindicated.
Anderson, in particular, was excellent. Gaining conventional swing with the new ball and reverse swing with the old, he scarcely bowled a loose ball throughout and, when he took the wicket of Prasanna Jayawardene, he drew level with Brian Statham on 252 Test wickets. Only four England bowlers – Ian Botham, Bob Willis, Fred Trueman and Derek Underwood – have more.
Patel could also reflect with pleasure on his first day of Test cricket. While both frontline spinners went wicketless, Patel struck twice. He is not the biggest turner of the ball, but he bowls straight with just enough variation to keep the batsmen honest.
Perhaps it was the heat, perhaps it was the linger issue of his ankle injury, but Broad appeared to struggle as the day progressed and England will be uncomfortable with the speed that runs were leaked after they claimed the second new ball. While the pitch is far from a minefield, it is highly unlikely to grow any easier and England – fresh from their travails against Pakistan’s spinners in the UAE – may struggle to shake the worry that they have squandered their best chance to take a firm grip on the series.