England’s spin twins show promise in Sri Lanka but real test is yet to come | Andy Bull
The Test was in the balance early on the fourth morning. Sri Lanka’s openers had rattled off 15 quick runs from the opening overs of their second innings, and their team’s lead was just up above 50. And all the time, in the back of the mind, there was the nagging flashback to all the ham-fisted collapses England have endured over the years, and their early struggles having been set 74 to win the first Test on this same ground in the fourth innings last week. The way Lasith Embuldeniya had been bowling so far this series, you wondered how many more runs he would need up his sleeve to run through them again in the fourth innings here. Would 100 be enough? Or 150?
Embuldeniya’s bowling was a large part of the reason why Sri Lanka had this lead. He had been the difference between the teams in the first innings, when he had worked England over single-handedly with seven wickets from 42 overs. His English counterparts, Dom Bess and Jack Leach, had not managed one in 64 overs between them and Jimmy Anderson (29-13-40-6) had to pick up the slack.
Regardless, it was Bess and Leach to whom Root turned now, as the game was just threatening to get away from him. After four overs, he pulled Anderson and Sam Curran out of the attack and tossed the new ball to the two spinners as if to say: “Here, turn this around for me.” Leach and Bess were under some pressure: even though they had been outbowled in the first half of the match the expectation was that, now the pitch was spinning, they would be able to roll Sri Lanka over in the second.
All the while, everyone has got half an eye on the series against India which begins next week, with Moeen Ali watching from back in the dressing room, waiting for an opportunity to prove he can still do it.
Bess started with an arm-ball, the one that goes straight on, which slipped through the gap between Lahiru Thirimanne’s bat and pad, and beat the wicketkeeper too. Two balls later he got another delivery to pop off the pitch, which Thirimanne fended away to gully. Immediately, then, Bess was in the game. At the other end, Leach quickly dismissed Kusal Perera lbw with his second delivery, which plugged the batsman flush in the gut as he dropped on to one knee to play a slog-sweep. Moments later, Bess got Oshada Fernando, caught at short leg. Then Leach dismissed Thirimanne the same way. Sri Lanka were three down now, and their lead was 74.
That meant the game had reached another tipping point. Sri Lanka’s two best and most experienced batsmen, Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews, were together in the middle. But not for long. Neither seemed quite sure how to play the situation, whether it would be best to stick or twist. Bess bowled Mathews as he played a slog-sweep, Leach had Chandimal caught at mid-on, trying to hit the second of what would have been back-to-back fours. Niroshan Dickwella seemed confused too, and clothed a drive straight to cover. Dilruwan Perera was caught at short leg, and Ramesh Mendis off a ball that bounced up off his boot. Leach and Bess had turned the game on its head with eight wickets for 61 runs in 22 overs.
A churl might argue that they didn’t bowl so very well as all that makes it sound. They had a spinning pitch to work with and were up against a group of batsmen who seemed to have forgotten how to go about their business. They had a lot of help from the fielders, too, even though Root missed a couple of catches at slip. Zak Crawley was superb at short leg, and Anderson took a spectacular running catch at mid-on, looking back over his shoulder into the sun. And in among the wickets, both Leach and Bess bowled a few more bad balls than either would have liked, which is why Embuldeniya and Suranga Lakmal were able to put on 48 runs together for the ninth wicket.
In the end Root had to bring himself on to finish off the innings. Which meant that while England’s seamers had taken all 10 wickets in the first innings, their spinners had taken all 10 in the second. It was (the statistician Andrew Samson pointed out) the first time that had happened in the history of Test cricket.
They say you can go a long way in journalism with a plausible manner, a little ability and a rat-like cunning. It sometimes feels like Bess succeeds in international cricket with a similarly limited armoury – a little luck, a lot of pluck, and just enough batting to get by on. And fair enough. Leach is more convincing, but is still working his way back into shape after missing so much cricket last year. In the middle of all this, Leach actually became England’s leading wicket-taker in Sri Lanka. He has taken 28 in five Tests there now. He hasn’t taken one in India yet, though. And while it seems odd to worry after such a fine series victory as this, anyone who follows England long frets easily, and the thought occurs that he and Bess will find the batsmen less forgiving there.