Over the first two days, opportunities for Sri Lanka were scanty but they squandered whatever came their way. On Day 3, all eyes were on England as they attempted to press for an innings victory, the first step of which was a hefty lead. However, Sri Lanka won not just the first but the second session as well to dent England’s hopes of batting only once in the Test.
It was an admirable fightback, one which has been associated with Sri Lankan cricket ever since their arrival as a cricketing nation. First with the ball, they bundled out England, taking six wickets for 101 runs, restricting the away side's lead to 286. It was a kind of session they needed yesterday. In today’s scheme of things, it appeared too little, too late but it was aptly backed up by their top-order batsmen post lunch.
By the 11th over in their first innings, Sri Lanka were three wickets down. At the same mark in the second innings, they did not lose a wicket. The opening pair of Kusal Perera and Lahiru Thirimanne, in fact, did not give the visitors any reason to celebrate throughout the afternoon session.
They added 101 runs for the first wicket. The highlight of their partnership was the resilience to begin the innings. The run-rate hovered around 1.9 runs per over for as long as 23 overs. With his eye in, Perera, who was 27 off 73 balls at this point, decided to shift marginally towards his natural attacking style of play. He began the 24th over - bowled by Jack Leach - with a six and a four. Those two strokes infused momentum into his innings as he went on to remain unbeaten on 55 from 102 balls at tea. Thirimanne, caught down the leg side in a dull dismissal in the first innings, was alert throughout the session to provide support. At tea, Sri Lanka were 90 for no loss.
Given the steep task at hand, they needed to carry on post lunch. But Perera gift wrapped his wicket for the second time in the match. After reverse sweeping Dom Bess straight into the hands of first slip in the first innings, this time, Perera hit a short and wide delivery from Sam Curran straight down Jack Leach’s throat at deep point. Curran’s amused reaction said everything about the credentials of that delivery to fetch a wicket.
But that did not disturb Thirimanne’s concentration. Standing at first slip for most part of England’s innings, he seemed to have studied Joe Root’s methods from close quarters. Thirimanne, apart from resolute defence, employed the sweep stroke to effective results. Kusal Mendis, another Sri Lankan who was a close-in fielder during England’s innings, followed the same strategy to get off the mark, scoring his first Test run in five innings. The way those two batted, it was clear that Perera’s dismissal only affected Sri Lanka’s run-rate, not their spirit. The duo added 54 runs for the second wicket from 133 balls.
England must be disappointed with the way their spinners have operated in the second innings so far. They erred in their line and length, especially during the afternoon session. The skipper brought himself on and challenged the batsmen more than the specialist Bess. Bess also dropped a straightforward catch of Thirimanne when the left-hander was on 51.
When it felt that Mendis and Thirmanne would ensure the last session went in Sri Lanka’s favour as well, Leach brought about a much-needed breakthrough for England. He tossed the ball up, bringing Mendis on the front foot and spun it sharply to catch the outside of his gloves to Jos Buttler, who completed a brilliant catch. The only downside of Mendis’ knock was his overly defensive approach and perhaps that is what accounted for his wicket, along to go with Leach and Buttler’s combined brilliance. Had he gone for the attacking option of a sweep, he may have dealt with it better.
Mendis departed for 15 off 65 balls and the fact that it proved to be the penultimate over of the day - due to bad light - made it worse for Sri Lanka. They sent the nightwatchman Lasith Embuldeniya and Curran fumbled an opportunity to run him out in the next over.
Earlier in the day, Sri Lanka’s start with the ball did not inspire much of what panned out in the day. They allowed England a good start in their motive to grow their lead, conceding 42 runs in the first eight overs. A change in ball - due to its irregular shape - brought about a change in luck. Right-arm pacer Asita Fernando showed his prowess, dismissing Buttler and Curran off consecutive deliveries as soon as the ball was changed. Buttler, stuck on his feet at 30, edged Fernando’s late outswinger to Niroshan Dickwella. Curran was castled by an inswinging delivery which was too good for him to counter as his first delivery.
While Root stayed firm at one end, Sri Lanka kept the pressure on the other, with deliveries that constantly induced loud appeals. The fall of wickets never stopped, but Root marched on to 228, adding 60 runs to his overnight score which also stretched England’s lead to 286. It was Root’s fourth double ton, his second highest Test score and at 177, he also crossed 8,000 Test runs. He scored 83 runs from sweeps, the most in a Test innings since 2011.
Root was the last man to be dismissed as Sri Lanka ran through England’s lower order. Dilruwan Perera was at the thick of things, picking all the three wickets to fall after the drinks break. Stuart Broad’s two boundaries - after overturning two lbw decisions in his favour through DRS - took him to an unbeaten 11 when the four batsmen above added only 8 runs combined to the England total. Root ultimately fell for 228, trying to up the ante with only one wicket left in the innings.