This post also appears at spincricket.com.
Ball One (SL 318 all out) – The more one watches Test cricket, the harder it is to read (knowledge of its history just multiplies one’s forecasting options). Did this pitch and conditions combination show its true colours when Sri Lanka were 191-7 or is it really a 318 pitch? Is it the type of track in which you’re never really in, as six scores between 11 and 27 suggest; or, once set, can good batsmen cash in, as Mahela’s 180 demonstrates? As usual with pitches, we just don’t know yet – but we will soon, when England’s batsmen face up to trial by spin. My hunch? It’s a good cricket wicket that has offered some pace for batsmen to work with and a little help to the spinners – it’s a 350, 300, 250, 200 par pitch (par diminishing as the soil crumbles). It’s the kind of pitch that rewards positive batting and positive bowling.
Ball Two (Eng 43-3) – For all the talk about pitches that rolls around media coverage, many dismissals in any Test would be dismissals on any wicket – as England’s start has shown. Alastair Cook got a good one that curved into him a little and merely continued its path after pitching – only to be met with a planted right foot in front of off stump. Trott continued England’s winter trend of failing to read flight and yorked himself playing a forcing shot with the scoring rate healthy. Then Strauss, after all the hard work done in getting to 26, pre-meditated a sweep shot to be plumb LBW. No shot is played in isolation, but there is little in the pitch, no problem with the scoring rate and a template in battling through the first two sessions to attack tiring bowlers late in the day, has already been provided. The game is never easy, but England have made it look very difficult indeed this winter.
Ball Three (Eng 88-5) – Who needs Muralitharan? Or any world class bowler? Without doing anything more than bowling straightish and fullish, Sri Lanka have half of England’s wickets. The same players who broke the will of Australia in Australia and cashed in on the somewhat broken will of India in England, have surrendered to competent, but innocuous bowling that Ian Bell is happily treating with contempt. Quite what demons are released into English batsmen’s collective psyche on the sub-continent I do not know – and, given the inability to address this fault, perhaps Team England don’t know either.
Ball Four (Eng 113-6) – Watching old footage of the West Indies’ ferocious pacemen of the 70s hurtling in to bowl bouncers at bare heads, you wonder how any batsman ever got on to the front foot. But with helmets, body armour, bouncer limits and few genuine quicks around, can it really be so difficult to get forward and present a straight bat? It’s the first shot any batsman learns, the shot they play most often in the middle and in practice and yet the plain forward defensive seems almost impossible for Englishmen to play on the sub-continent. Perhaps only Stuart Broad commits to the front foot early in his innings and only he seems to have the confidence to rock back off the front foot and attack instead of prodding and poking. Soon even his positive innings fell foul of pre-meditation, with a sweep not the ideal stroke to offer a fullish, straightish ball from Herath.
Ball Five (Eng 141-7) – Amidst the English wreckage, court jester Swanny can be relied upon to offer a little relief and he doesn’t let us down, resplendent in an old-fashioned cap and playing an old-fashioned Number 9’s knock of block and biff. He might also be pondering his fate at the non-striker’s end between spells searching for the nearest camera. Yesterday, he bowled a decent line and length with a bit of flight and got 0-92 – today Rangana Herath has done the same thing and picked up 6-74..
Ball Six (SL14-3) – Ball One speculated that we would know the character of the pitch by now, but we don’t. England did not hang around long enough for secure judgements to be formed and few England men were truly bowled out. Having baked under the equatorial sun for two days, there’s just a hint of caprice in the wicket as it offered Swanny turn to see off Lahiru Thirimanne and skid to despatch a tired looking Mahela Jayawardene back to the sanctuary of the dressing room. Chasing 250 will be a huge ask for England even if they bat well: bat like they did in their first innings and chasing 150 will be beyond them.
You can tweet Gary Naylor at @garynaylor999