A greenish Lord’s track tempted Angelo Mathews into inserting a new-look England, but Joe Root’s unbeaten century steered the home side to a formidable 344 for 5 at close on the first day of the first Test against Sri Lanka at Lord’s on Thursday (June 12).
England took toll of a tiring attack in the third session of the day. Moeen Ali’s debut 48 had shown real promise, but England will be most pleased with the recalled Matt Prior’s punchy unbeaten 76 from 103 balls, the kind of momentum-shifting innings that fuelled his career before his form fell away so dismally in 2013. With three authentic stroke-makers to come in England’s late order, the Lankan bowling will need to show much more penetration if they are to give their batsmen a chance to establish a foothold in the match on days two and three.
It was a traditional first hour, as Nuwan Kulasekara and Nuwan Pradeep wobbled the new ball in the air and off the seam to the discomfort of England’s openers. A little nervous on debut, Sam Robson reached for one he should have left and edged Pradeep to Prasanna Jayawardena, who snared a fine catch diving down the Lord’s slope. The first hour also accounted for Alastair Cook, whose skittish innings of 17 off 26 balls concluded when he chopped Kulasekara on to his stumps playing a forcing stroke to a ball that was much too close to him. The Lankan opening pair had bowled like two grizzled 1950s English seamers, keeping the ball up and making the batsmen play – and they got their just desserts, as they began to justify their captain’s decision to bowl first.
Despite their losses, the much trumpeted new dawn for England was apparent, as Ian Bell and Gary Ballance remained happy to play their shots, unwilling to see the Lankans wrest the initiative no matter what the scoreboard said. There was more evidence of a commitment to positive play when Bell took Rangana Herath for six and Shaminda Eranga for four in the first two overs after lunch to reach a fifty that was from a completely different world to one inhabited by his partners.
It was too good to last. Bell pushed forward to Eranga and was taken above the knee roll, sufficiently high to prompt the not out decision from Paul Reiffel, but DRS showed otherwise. As is so often the case with Bell, one felt that there was a lot more to be offered than he delivered. At 120 for 4 in the 29th over, Sri Lanka was nosing ahead of its host.
The hands across the chest and raised finger brought Ali to the crease to join Root. What followed was a thoroughly professional rebuilding job, with the new boy marginally the more fluent in the partnership, but the left-hand, right-hand combination and shot selection ideal for mid-afternoon, old ball, day one cricket. One of the marks of a good Test cricketer, indeed of a man in form, is a considered balancing of risk and reward, something Ali appeared to grasp from the first moments of his Test career. A waft at the last ball of an Eranga over when on 36 stood out as a rare aberration in an innings that promised much for the future.
With England 195 for 4 at tea, Mathews needed a big effort from his bowlers in the evening session on a pitch gone very flat, with both batsmen very much set. He had backed his attack when putting England in and had presumably reckoned on having at least one session when the batsmen were on top – but could he afford two?
There was a definite sense of disappointment around the ground when Ali edged Herath to Mahela Jayawardena at slip to depart on 48. The crowd had liked what they had seen and, perhaps, had begun to believe that the Winter of Discontent was, at last, behind their Test team.
Ali was replaced by Prior, another casualty of the Australian tour, who, recalled at the scene of his debut ton for what must have felt like a second debut seven years on, survived a close lbw shout, but was soon back in the groove, busily accumulating as a strong England position became stronger. His was a redemptive half-century that underlined the selectors’ wisdom in going back to him for all Jos Buttler’s potential.
Meanwhile Root was seeing it big, looking much more at ease than he had early in his innings when his economy of movement at the crease looks more like indecisiveness. His strike rate was lifted from below fifty to above it as the Lankan bowlers found the going hard on a pitch now ideal for batting. When he punched Herath to long-on for the three runs that secured his ton, Root celebrated like he’d scored the winner in the Maracana – there’s nothing like hard times to make a man appreciate the good times.
That thought will, no doubt, be on Cook’s mind too, but he’ll know that this is a flat pitch that will get flatter and that England will need 400-plus to exert the scoreboard pressure they will need to take 20 Sri Lankan wickets. Both teams still have much to do at the end of the first day’s play.
(Courtesy: International Cricket Council)