The first two days of this challenging Test winter were dreamy for England. They bowled Sri Lanka out for 135, with a young spinner taking five wickets, before their captain helped them rack up a big lead.
The third morning went pretty well too. They lost six wickets to be bowled out for 421, but that they had ticked along swiftly, taking the lead to 286. That was mainly thanks to Joe Root, who was the last man out for 228, the second-biggest of his four Test double-centuries. He had forged a position of real strength.
A tough session had to arrive at some stage, and after lunch they got what they will have been expecting. On a pitch that is turning but not spitting and with Sri Lanka’s batsmen behaving themselves much better, the 35 over session passed without as much as a chance.
Root cycled through three seamers and three spinners. The seamers brought control, especially Stuart Broad, whose eight overs cost three runs. The premier spinners, hardly flush with the experience in these circumstances, were disappointing; Dom Bess, who chanced his way to five for 30 in the first innings, bowled a bit short, and the rusty Jack Leach was milked. Maidens were thin on the ground.
The good news was that, late in the afternoon session, Moeen Ali emerged from 13 days’ quarantine. When his isolation was extended two days out from this Test, England effectively ruled him out of the second match of the series. But with six days to prepare and with spin playing such a part, he will surely look to force his way into contention. 181 Test wickets should not be sniffed at.
Sri Lanka’s batting coach Grant Flower had been scathing in his assessment of his charges’ efforts on day one, and the message got through. Kusal Perera reined in his natural instincts to bat impressively, while Lahiru Thirimanne was watchful. Perera, who had swiped a couple of boundaries off Leach, reached a fine fifty shortly before tea, then was hit hard on the glove by Mark Wood.
That was the first moment that gave the sense that England have the varied armoury required to summon something in such situations. And when Root turned to Sam Curran’s cutters after tea, two chances promptly arrived. The first was a gift from Perera, slashing a short, wide ball to deep point. Jack Leach gobbled up the chance. The second was harder-earned; Thirimanne, who had also reached fifty, cut hard, but Dom Sibley dropped him at gully. It was a bad let-off.
By then, Kusal Mendis had scored what must have felt the most important run of his career. After four ducks in a row, a series of blows to the body at short leg yesterday, and six dot balls to start his innings, he scampered a single off Leach and – along with most of the cricketing world – breathed a broad sigh of relief.
He survived 65 balls in a stand of 54 with Thirimanne, on whom England wasted a review. With the light fading, Leach bowled a beautiful delivery that took Mendis’s glove on the way through to Buttler, who took a fine rising catch. Out came Lasith Embuldeniya, Sri Lanka’s best bowler, as nightwatchman. He made it to stumps with Thirimanne, as Sri Lanka restored some pride and trimmed England’s lead to 130.
That England had so much room for manoeuvre was down to Root, whose masterpiece was as elegant on the third day as it was on the first. He added 60 more to his overnight score, with his 177th run taking him past 8,000 in the format. At 30 years and 17 days he is the third youngest, after Alastair Cook and Sachin Tendulkar, to reach the milestone. And in 178 innings, he is the second fastest of the seven Englishmen to get there, after Kevin Pietersen (176).
After a productive first half-hour with Jos Buttler, wickets fell steadily around Root, who continued to sweep repeatedly. A change of ball worked for Avishka Fernando as Buttler was caught behind and Curran bowled in successive balls. Bess was run out sacrificing himself, then Dilruwan Perera got Leach and Wood to pad the figures of a poor bowling performance.
Having some fun with Broad, Root was caught on the cow fence. He might have thought then that his batting was done for this Test. Sri Lanka, though, have other ideas and England now know how hard they will have to work for victory.