Joe Root’s fourth double century put England in a commanding position at lunch on day three in Galle, before Sri Lanka dug in to frustrate the tourists for 62 overs.
Root doubles up
England captain Root, who was on 166 overnight, resumed with Jos Buttler at the other end and carried on in much the same vain as he did scoring his 100 day two runs, sweeping fine and through midwicket to great effect.
Fittingly it was a hard sweep that took Root to 200- his second overseas- and he looked in complete control as he took England beyond 400 and to a first innings lead of 286. The longer his innings went on the more brutal it got for the Sri Lankan attack, at one point skipping down the ground to swing Dilruwan Perera for six and bring the double ton within reach. He carried on past the landmark, even plundering boundaries off the pace of Asatha Fernando and Dashun Shanaka as England’s lead built. It was only when he attempted one big shot too many, sending Perera down the throat of deep mid wicket, that his magnificent innings came to an end, and with it England’s.
Sri Lanka dig in to frustrate tourists
That England were in such a commanding position was down not only to Root’s innings, but Sri Lanka’s implosion within 47 overs on day one. Given that the pitch in the morning session looked to be taking more and more turn, the contrast shown as the hosts’ second innings got underway after lunch was remarkable, with both openers reaching 50.
Stuart Broad, England’s best bowler on day one despite Dom Bess’s five-for, offered control with the new ball but could not make early inroads as he had done on Thursday. And as the opening pair of Lasitha Thirimmane and Kusal Perera got settled, nudging and sweeping their way to a 50 partnership brought up with a Perera six over mid on, England seemed to drift aimlessly through the afternoon session. Only Mark Wood caused either opener any consternation when a rapid bouncer hit Perera on the hand moments after he brought up his own fifty, late in the afternoon session.
Curran finds breakthrough
It was not until the third over after tea that England found a way through- by this time the partnership had reached 100, and as is so often the case it was a poor shot at a loose delivery that broke the partnership. Kusal Perera had been virtually flawless up until the point where he slashed a short and wide delivery from Sam Curran to deep backward point- Jack Leach with a simple catch as he came round.
This brought Kusal Mendis to the crease, looking to avoid a fifth duck in a row; with England’s spinners having offered little threat it seemed his best opportunity to break the bad spell. And he eventually got off the mark, despite Leach beginning to find some rhythm as a couple ripped away from the right hander. Mendis dug in for some 64 balls- forming another 50 partnership for Sri Lanka with Thirimmane- before number 65 pitched on middle and off and ripped away taking a thin edge into Buttler’s gloves.
England's spin struggles
That wicket came as sweet relief for England, with Leach and Bess struggling throughout both sessions to find any consistency in their line and length. It was only towards the end, with clouds rolling in and bad light bringing a somewhat premature end to proceedings, that Leach started to look something like the bowler that led England’s 2018 whitewash here. That dismissal is a reminder of how potent the left armer can be when there’s any sort of turn.
That Leach was rusty was understandable, with only two first class matches in a year under his belt. He was still the most threatening of the two spinners, with Bess inexpensive but offering little and a little too easy to play for the left handed pair of Thirimmane and Kusal Perera. The sight of Moeen Ali arriving at the ground an hour after his quarantine ended may not have been most welcome for Bess’s prospects of keeping his place when England move over to India.
Sri Lanka bowlers drag England back within reach
It is a mark of how dominant England had been for the first two days that Sri Lanka remain so far behind in the game. In reality Root would have been targeting a lead closer to 350 but some good bowling saw England lose their remaining six wickets for 101 runs in the morning sessions. Once Fernando took the outside edge of Buttler with one that nibbled away, before bowling Curran next ball through the gate, the momentum seemed to leave England’s innings, excluding Root. But the eventual lead of 286- Dilruwan Perera’s three wickets in the session helping to restrict it- was not to be sniffed at. It should still be more than enough for victory despite the hosts’ vastly improved batting.
It did not help England’s cause that the pitch seemed to get slower- a fullish ball from Leach that turned was easily played off the back foot by Mendis was a prime example- but there was still enough in it to encourage much better bowling than was on display. It is still a huge uphill task for Sri Lanka, and England will expect much better from their spin pair in the morning. Leach’s late breakthrough gives the tourists hope that more inroads will be made tomorrow, whilst Sri Lanka will resume with Thirimmane eyeing up a century and aiming to bat as long as possible. The scales are certainly in England’s favour but there are no guarantees on the final two days.