Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow put on a masterclass on how to counter spin bowling, something to learn for the Sri Lankan batsmen, to put England in a dominant position on the opening day of the Test series in Galle.
Coming together at 17 for two, a potential door for Sri Lanka to come back in the match after being bundled out for 135, the duo neutralized the opponent’s three-man spin attack to put on a 100-run stand. At stumps, England are only 8 runs away from building a first innings lead.
Root’s unbeaten 66 today came at a false-shot percentage of only 5.2, the lowest in the match for any batsman who scored in double figures today. A strike-rate of 57.9 was another testimony to the quality of his innings. Bairstow, on the other end, was not much behind, striking at 51.7 for his 47 runs.
The two employed the sweep shots to perfection to keep the Sri Lankan spinners at bay. They played 23 sweep shots together in the 31.2 overs they faced from the spinners. Sri Lankan batsmen had attempted only eight such strokes in 27.1 overs of Jack Leach and Dom Bess. The pitch was not that tough to bat as it may appear after a glance at Sri Lanka’s first innings total but when spin is bowled in copious amounts, it is important to have such options in the back.
Earlier in the day, Sri Lanka lost their skipper, Dimuth Karunaratne as the injury list which went on board during the tour of South Africa continued to grow. The southpaw fractured his thumb and Dinesh Chandimal took over the captaincy. Winning the toss, he made the right call of batting first. His team, however, squandered the opportunity of making first use of the pitch.
The pitch had very little for the seam bowlers, yet Stuart Broad was the one who made early inroads into Sri Lanka’s batting line-up. After turtle-paced cricket in the first 45 minutes - due to persistent troubles with the sightscreen - the lanky pacer struck twice in the seventh over of the day to break everyone’s slumber.
Lahiru Thirimanne, averaging 22.7 after 36 Tests prior to this match, fell right into Broad’s leg-side trap. Operating from around the wicket, Broad bowled on Thirimanne’s legs and the southpaw played the ball straight to Bairstow, placed at leg-slip, as if he was not aware of the field change. Two balls later, Broad piled on Kusal Mendis’ poor form. The right-hander, who was on a streak of three consecutive ducks stretched it to four. He played a leg-cutter from Broad away from his body, edging it to Jos Buttler behind the stumps.
Spin was introduced in the 11th over. Kusal Perera tried to dominate Bess but he was too funky, too soon with his version of the sweep stroke. He went for an inexplicable reverse sweep against Bess off the second ball of the over and handed catching practice to Root at first slip. Sri Lanka were down to 25 for three.
For as long as Chandimal and Angelo Mathews were in the middle, there were hopes of a revival. They added 56 runs for the fourth wicket. But instead of batting long, both of them succumbed to poorly executed attacking shots. Mathews edged a wide delivery from Broad to first slip in a loose cut shot. Chandimal, in the very next over, tried to hit Leach down the ground but without reaching the pitch of the ball. The ball turned away, he lost his balance on the front foot and a flying outside edge was pouched by Sam Curran at cover.
Niroshan Dickwella and Dasun Shanaka added 24 runs for the sixth wicket but Sri Lanka’s innings was going towards the darker side of the tunnel rather than the one with light. Dickwella added to the list of soft dismissals, playing a sluggish cut shot to the point fielder. It was Bess’ only second wicket and he ran through Sri Lanka’s lower order. He took three of the next four Sri Lankan wickets to fall for 30 runs, the other one of which was a run out, to complete his second five-wicket haul in Test cricket. Years later, he can describe it as one of his least challenging five-fors at international level.
Except Shanaka, who suffered a bit of a freaky dismissal with the ball bouncing off the short-leg fielder’s boot to the keeper, all the other Sri Lankan batsmen with batting ability served their wicket on a platter. Opting to bat first, the home side folded for the lowest first innings total at Galle, surviving for only 46.1 overs.
The only period Sri Lanka looked inspired to dominate was the early overs with the ball. Lasith Embuldeniya snaffled both the England openers - Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley - early in his spell. But the class of Root and Bairstow deflated them soon, leaving a mountain to climb for them to get back in this game.