Slapstick Sri Lanka give it away

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Old 21-Jun-2014
Slapstick Sri Lanka give it away

As Sri Lanka's hero and nearly-villain from the last over at Lord's came together in the middle in the third session, the innings took a turn toward slapstick. England's quick bowlers launched throat-high bouncers at Nuwan Pradeep, and the batsman made it seem like they were firing cannonballs. He spent more time on the ground than a bank-robbery hostage, but quickly learned to back away instead. Maybe he was just making room outside off stump. His deliciously late, accidental uppercut over the slips, is a shot most of the Sri Lanka top order would not attempt.

Shortly before that, Sri Lanka had folded in such a sorry heap, even Stuart Broad could not quite believe he had taken three wickets in a row for the second time in Tests. Sri Lanka have almost become skilled at awarding surreptitious hat-tricks. Jacob Oram only found out about his feat, well after the 2009 T20 in Colombo had finished.

Sri Lanka's first-ever day at Headingley made for enjoyable viewing, right up until Shaminda Eranga copping one in the back from the cheddar chucker of the Western Terrace. There was a sumptuous cover drive from Mahela Jayawardene, and a dreamy stroke through cover-point from Kumar Sangakkara. Dinesh Chandimal's recent form had suggested he is not suited for limited-overs cricket, but here, played a bright, counter-attacking innings. Angelo Mathews had gone even faster for his 26.

The visitors will have known the history of the venue before they took the field on Friday. "We would have batted first," Chandimal said after play, because the team had reasoned good first-innings totals often translate to good results at Headingley. But if a tall score was their aim, Sri Lanka chose a strange approach. Compelled to lock away their strokes, as they strove for a draw at Lord's, Sri Lanka reopened the cupboard for this match, and were buried as all their shots came tumbling out at once. Of the top seven, five fell playing expansively.

In the morning, under grey skies, the openers had suggested Sri Lanka would sink their hooks in like leeches and wait until all life was drawn from a slower-than-expected pitch. Kaushal Silva had outlined the importance of leaving well, during two fifties at Lord's and perhaps he alone struck the appropriate approach for Sri Lanka's plans. Few batsmen in the world can resist James Anderson in swift, swerving flight, and Silva received an almost unplayable stretch of deliveries.

But as well as Broad and Liam Plunkett also bowled, Sri Lanka chose to live by the sword, before falling on it. Few young players can at once seem as gloriously effortless and jarringly fretful in the same innings as Dimuth Karunaratne. On Friday, he managed the slide from serene to unseemly in the space of two deliveries. His push down the ground for four off Plunkett was delivered with such balance and poise, it suggested this would be the innings he pushed through the tense twenties and twitchy thirties and on to a breakthrough score. His waft at the next ball, which came in at an angle and swung between bat and pad to send leg stump careening, is easy fodder for his naysayers.

If the entire top order had played like Sangakkara, they might have been all out for 150 on another day, but instead, his innings was slam-dunk evidence for the existence of cricket's supernatural elements. England missed a straightforward run out when he was on nought, then failed to appeal when he nicked Plunkett behind. He was dropped on 57, but most astonishing of his escapes was the caught behind on 27. Matt Prior had the ball wedged close against his chest, but seemed to be too distracted by something in the sky to hold it there. A UFO sighting is probably the only acceptable excuse.

Jayawardene and Mathews gave edges to the slips, pushing at balls they may reflect they could have left alone. At no point past the first hour, did Sri Lanka seem tied down, or in desperate need of quick runs. Lahiru Thirimanne did not even have a chance to confront his mortal nemesis, Anderson. The vice-captaincy has recently been such a poisoned chalice for young Sri Lanka players, perhaps the selectors should stop naming one.

"It's really disappointing that as a batting unit we didn't click today," Chandimal said. "The bowlers deserve a lot of credit for the way they bowled on this pitch. When myself and Sanga were batting well in that middle part, we were thinking about 350 would be a good score. But we couldn't get that in the end."

Sri Lanka may have battled on the last day at Lord's but their lack of mettle on Friday reasserted their unwanted reputation for being fun, free-flowing, but ultimately lightweight Test cricketers, particularly on foreign soil. There was a hint of turn for the spinners on the opening day, but if Sri Lanka are to take the game long enough for Rangana Herath to force his way into it, they will not want to be so cavalier in the second innings.

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