nyone lucky enough to have visited Sri Lanka will have come across the most welcoming hosts.
Normally, though, that hospitality and generosity does not extend to the cricket field, where so many special players have made them fiendishly difficult to face, especially at Galle, a cricketing fortress next to a colonial fort.
Not today. Sri Lanka simply gifted England wickets on a surreal opening day that saw the hosts bowled for 135, the lowest total ever batting first at Galle. England, infamously slow starters in series, especially abroad, received the gifts gratefully.
England’s dominance meant that it was not just the lack of a crowd — the sole Englishman there, Rob “DJ Randy Caddick” Lewis, was ejected from the fort by security — that made this an unusual game at Galle.
The pitch turned from the start, but is no minefield — yet (England will not want to chase much in the fourth innings). And England bowled well, but not 135 all out well.
It was a day that started badly for Sri Lanka, when their captain Dimuth Karunaratne was ruled out with a broken thumb before the toss, and got worse. His replacement, Dimuth Chandimal, won what appeared an important toss, but they could not capitalise.
Until Bairstow and Root calmly got into their work, the cricket had looked a world away from the high-quality fare on show in the series between Australia and India that continues in Brisbane tonight. But there is mitigation. A week ago, Sri Lanka were in South Africa, where they suffered two heavy defeats and plenty of injuries. England had one day of practise cricket in Sri Lanka and are also missing a host of players.
The main beneficiary of Sri Lanka’s charity was Dom Bess, who was outbowled by Jack Leach, but came away with a second Test five-for.
Bess struck with the second ball of his first spell and the first ball of his second, both in comical fashion. Kusal Perera, who had made a typically aggressive start, tried an ambitious reverse-sweep, but only found slip. Then Niroshan Dickwella slapped a horrid drag-down to backward point. It was a wicket so filthy that the catcher, Dom Sibley, looked disbelieving and the bowler, Bess, could not bring himself to celebrate.
Little did Bess know that it would get sillier still. Dasun Shanaka was caught by wicketkeeper Jos Buttler via a deflection off short leg Bairstow’s ankle. Sri Lanka perhaps saved the best until last, with Wanindu Hasaranga bowled behind his legs as he attempted a wild reverse-sweep. Between times, a nice off-break had gone through Dilruwan Perera’s gaping gate. As he walked off, Bess looked rather sheepish as he raised the ball to the absent audience.
The statisticians at CricViz have an “expected wickets” model to assess a ball’s threat. They said that the 61 balls Bess bowled should have taken 0.55 wickets; instead, he finished with five. Bess’s Test bowling average dropped from 40.57 to 33.38 during 10 pleasing overs’ work.
It was Stuart Broad, preferred to James Anderson, who bowled best. It is 14 years since he made his Test debut in Sri Lanka and this is his fourth tour to the country. Across the first three, he had bowled 82 overs and taken just three wickets. This time, he had three wickets in his first eight overs.
Lahiru Thirimanne turned straight to Bairstow at an imaginatively-placed leg gully, then Kusal Mendis groped hard at a leg-cutter — which was almost Broad’s stock delivery — and was caught behind. After two in Johannesburg and one at Centurion, Mendis had recorded ‘an Audi’: four ducks in a row.
That brought Angelo Mathews to the crease, who was partly to blame for just nine overs being bowled in the first hour. In an entertaining battle with Mark Wood, who touched 93mph, Mathews called for a chest guard, then had his bat broken by a thunderbolt. Neither delay lasted as long as the one caused by a faulty sightscreen, though.
Mathews’ stand of 65 with Chandimal either side of lunch was comfortably the biggest of the innings. The pair are Sri Lanka’s best batsmen, but both gave it away after lunch to spark the collapse of seven for 54, though, with Mathews slashing hard at Broad, then Chandimal driving Leach to cover, where he had already been dropped by debutant Dan Lawrence.
That would be Leach’s only wicket of an encouraging display, but he did run out Embuldeniya while backing up, a dismissal that epitomised a farcical display.
Embuldeniya dusted himself off to dismiss England’s openers — Dom Sibley, caught at slip, and Zak Crawley, driving down the ground — promptly, but Root and Bairstow brought some order to proceedings. They swept well and ran brilliantly, while Root overturned an lbw in their only real scare. Eight behind, England have a wonderful opportunity.