s the fourth day of this magnificent Test match drew to a close, every single delivery was an event capable of sending shivers down the spine.
England, who bowled Sri Lanka out for 135 on day one and had racked up a first-innings lead of 286 by day three, were chasing 74. There were yapping men round the bat, spin was bowled accurately from each end, and the batsmen just seemed desperate to get off strike.
In the blink of an eye, one opener Dom Sibley was bowled, the other Zak Crawley caught at slip, and the captain Joe Root – who had made a chanceless 228 in the first innings – was run out in shambolic fashion, colliding with the bowler and dropping his bat looking for a single that was probably never there. They were 14 for three, and still needed 60. Lasith Embuldeniya had taken both wickets and was bowling like a dream.
In were Jonny Bairstow, in his first Test for 13 months and shackled by the knowledge he had a part to play in Joe Root’s run out, and Dan Lawrence, the grinning debutant. England do not bat as deep in this game as they often do and, in Asia, nothing comes easy for the tourists.
Bairstow and Lawrence made it through nine overs, when bad light intervened. They will return tomorrow morning needing 36 runs, but Sri Lanka in the game. A thrilling game will reach its conclusion.
With Sri Lanka’s batting improved beyond measure, England had worked damn hard to keep their chase as low as 74. As Lahiru Thirimanne glided his way to his second Test century – almost eight years after the first – and a familiar tormentor, Angelo Mathews, stubbornly got in their way for 71, it could have been much worse.
Dom Bess dismissed the nightwatchman Lasith Embuldeniya in the first over of the day, but both he and Jack Leach struggled for rhythm. They followed good balls with bad ones, allowing pressure to release. Root got through some overs too.
Both spinners are a work in progress, on this tour and in their careers. Bess came into the game having not played since September, and is just 23. Leach has much more experience – but not lately. He played two matches for Somerset in 2020, and has struggled with illness in the last year or so. As they toiled away, the winter ahead seemed to become more daunting by the ball, and the need for Moeen Ali to convalesce quickly became more urgent.
England struggled for control when their pace bowlers were out of the attack. Stuart Broad had a superb game, with three wickets in the first innings and absurd figures of 17-11-14-0 in the second. Mark Wood provided intimidation, injuring Kusal Perera’s hand, while Sam Curran picked up hugely important wickets, including Thirimanne before lunch with the new ball. And England have plenty of other seamers to come.
Fortunately, though, both spinners improved markedly in the afternoon session. Bess dismissed Dinesh Chandimal, caught at slip, three balls after lunch, then returned to pick up his eighth of the match, Niroshan Dickwella, with the first ball of another spell. That ended a pesky partnership of 48 that had taken Sri Lanka into the lead.
Bess nudged the door open, Leach gave it a shove. He yorked Dasun Shanaka before tea and had Wanindu Hasaranga well caught by the diving Root at slip after the break.
Even then, with just two wickets remaining and 28 in front, Sri Lanka would not lie down. After Kusal Perera and Thirimanne, Thirimanne and Kusal Mendis, Thirimanne and Mathews, Mathews and Dickwella came Mathews and Dilruwan Perera. The pair counter-punched for 38, the first 25 coming in 26 balls, to add a little sweat to the England captain’s brow and make the opening day look ever more like an aberration.
But good awareness from Jos Buttler, who had an excellent game behind the stumps, broke the partnership. A beautiful ball from Leach to Perera brought a fruitless appeal for caught behind, during which Buttler whipped off the bails. Perera’s foot was on but not behind the line, and he had to go. It was Buttler’s first Test stumping, in his 28th Test as keeper, and a relief because he had missed a tough chance to get Mathews off Bess not long before.
Leach picked up the last wicket, too, with Mathews edging to slip for a superb 71. So both Leach and Bess took five wickets in an innings in the course of the game. They will take confidence into the second Test, but must keep improving. Before that is a concern, England have a job to do on Monday.