Following the ding-dong of Australia-India and the volatile first offering of this series, here was a reminder that most Test cricket does not have you on the edge of your seat. Certainly not at first. Sometimes it encourages you to sit back and take it easy. Take your coat off. Stay a while. We’re not in any rush.
Friday at Galle could be garnished with all the usual descriptors of this format. It was patient, cautious, shying away from the limelight with a “classical” run rate. To some self-appointed guardians of the game, a day to out those who don’t appreciate this. A net to catch those adrenaline junkies looking for hit after the pulsating finish of Brisbane.
But day one of the second Test, with its 2.63 runs per over and four wickets, carried enough engagement to reel you in for the excitement that lies ahead. A flat pitch tested the desire of Sri Lanka and the resolve of England to leave honours relatively even. Eventually, it will all propose different challenges with regular turn and irregular bounce.
That Sri Lanka finished on 227 for four is down to Angelo Mathews’s 11th Test hundred, picked up from a diligent 207 deliveries. Harnessing the form picked up from his 71 at the end of last week’s seven-wicket defeat, he lifted a side he carries from time to time to a precarious seven for two. That England remain in the mix despite grinding through 87 overs to account for just four batsman owes much to James Anderson’s three for 24. Figures that shine even brighter amid the backdrop of 10 maidens across 19 overs.
You could class Mathews and Anderson as two of the modern game's great survivors. And in a format where those most successful are the ones able to cling on for the longest, perhaps it was no surprise this was a situation where the class of both stood out.
What battles they have fought to get to this point have been on very different frontiers. Mathews against the hash of administrative obstruction, a body that has spent the last five years working against him and unfair doubts over his sense of responsibilty. Anderson’s rallying is primarily against wheels of time, beginning his 19th year of international cricket on Thursday as a replacement for Stuart Broad having sat out the first match.
Neither are conflicts to be won, per se. But it was hard not to surmise both are seizing their moments to restate their worth as they led their respective teams off the field at the stumps.
It was Mathews who struck the only two boundaries conceded by Anderson: off the 55th and 102nd ball sent down by England’s leading wicket-taker. Those alone were acknowledgements to Mathews's defiance and the back-breaking work required from the touring attack for their rewards.
Conditions were perfect for batting: a more comfortable surface than the first Test after spending less time under covers, and the baking Sri Lankan heat. In similar conditions during the tour match in Hambantota, Jos Buttler reported losing around 2kg of weight while keeping for 50 overs, despite taking on three litres of fluid.
These kinds of temperatures bleed those in the field of spirit and enthusiasm. But the attack did not let up and, in the case of Mark Wood, squeezed for a little bit extra to account for the slight waywardness of spinners Dom Bess and Jack Leach, who both went at three an over.
The Durham quick’s endeavour was characterised by an eight-over spell of sharp reverse swing. The length alone was reason to cheer: a once brittle frame summoning its longest straight spell in his 18th cap. The prize of a wicket within was a two-fold victory: a first of the tour - at the end of his 39th over (27 in the first Test) - to dismiss opposition skipper Dinesh Chandimal for 52, ending a 42.4-over partnership with Mathews that added 117.
England's satisfaction was also enhanced given they lost the toss once more. Their mood improved pretty quickly when they had their first two dismissals inside five overs, thoughts turning to a similar collapse of 135 all out that kicked off the first Test.
Kusal Perera was the first to fall, by his own hand rather than Anderson’s cocked wrist that shaped the ball away from the leftie. The aim was to slap a man with 600 Test wickets coming around the wicket over long-on. Far be it to lament anyone for their ambition - this was only the second ball Perera had faced from Anderson – but it felt as logical as trying to happy-slap a Lion to land the first blow. Unwise and, ultimately, brainless. Joe Root took a sharp catch above his head to complete the dismissal. The returning Oshada Fernando was bowled four balls later, surprised in defence by some extra bounce and playing onto his own stumps.
That would be England’s lot for the rest of the morning session. Lahiru Thirimanne and Mathews, fresh off a century and rugged 72 respectively, brought some calm with a stand of 69 and 21 energy-sapping overs through to lunch. Thirimanne, though, had the opportunity to go back for seconds, dismissed for the eighth time in his career by Anderson with the second ball after the break. This time the edge had to be coaxed outside off stump and through to Buttler.
So began Chandimal and Mathews: blunting, caressing and pretty much just staying where they were for the cause. Only impulsiveness could be the end of them, and neither were willing to indulge. Chandimal gave himself a pass for one ball – planting Bess down the ground for six – before returning to the brief.
As the sun baked all under it into the late afternoon, Wood brought his own heat. Chandimal was the one in his sights, pinned on the hands and grille in a spell that touched as high as 94mph.
Though the 31-year-survived, the mental scars were evident in his dismissal. At the start of Wood’s eight-over epic, when pace and reverse were most dramatic, a late-moving delivery skipped off the surface to trap Chandimal LBW. A DRS review confirmed impact with the stumps and Chandimal’s deepness in the crease.
Niroshan Dickwella (19 not out) picked up where the captain left off with Mathews to ensure the final 18 overs passed with just the ceremonial waving of the second new ball. England will on reconvene on day two nursing some sores but armed with a fresh seam and high hopes of building on their grind.
Breaking this stand will bring in debutant allrounder Ramesh Mendis ahead of a tail that has been elongated with the inclusion of Suranga Lakmal. The pitch should also be more amenable to bowlers, which makes starting their first innings as soon as possible all the more imperative for England.