Lahiru Thirimanne leads Sri Lanka fightback after Joe Root’s sublime double century puts England in control

Sri Lanka are fighting in their second innings to erase their deficit

The biggest boon of the afternoon came with the sight of Moeen Ali in the England dressing room. The allrounder has been isolating since 3 January after returning a positive Covid upon arrival into Sri Lanka. He was due to be released from his separate accommodation on Wednesday, however Sri Lankan authorities insisted on a further couple of days when they became aware he was still displaying symptoms. Though he was ruled out of the second Test, which starts next Friday, this was a performance crying out for someone with 181 wickets, and the nouse of an experienced campaigner who averages 24.50 in these conditions.

There was a stage it seemed this match would follow the usual pattern of Galle Tests. The pleasantries of the first couple of days are merely the calm before the bedlam, usually at the behest of the pitch. But England, in total control and 185 ahead at the start of play, opted to accelerate.

The first 52 runs came in just 59 deliveries, brought up with the innings’ second six, chipped down the ground by Root after Jos Buttler had struck three fours in four balls in the previous over.

Such was the damage that even the ball had gone out of shape. A change for a newer one, with a more pronounced seam, altered the momentum. Medium pacer Asitha Fernando benefitted immediately, taking successive wickets in a double-wicket maiden: Buttler hurried on the outside edge, Sam Curran through the gate, losing his middle stump for a golden duck.

The following over saw Root move to his double hundred, sweeping hard for a 16th boundary to get there, then celebrating with his 17th. There was not much support at the other end, though Root didn’t help that by running out Dom Bess for nought, it’s pretty hard to hold it against him when he provided more than half of the runs.

Joe Root bowls for England in Sri Lanka’s second innings

He fell giving it one last heave to the leg side, handing Dilruwan Perera a flattering haul of four for 109. Root strolled off, congratulated by opposition’s fielders before settling back into an appreciative dressing room for lunch. There was a faint whiff of a result by the end of Saturday evening.

But that’s where the progression hit a roadblock fronted by Perera and Thirimanne. Greater judgement and less rogue shot selection produced the first wicketless session of the match: 35 overs providing nothing but their 90 runs through to tea.

Perera, as ever, was the chief mischief-maker. The quiet of his first 50 deliveries brought 16 runs and allowed him the hurry-up for the next 41 that took him to 50. The joy of a seventh half-century made way for pain with the next ball: a bouncer from Mark Wood around 93mph, aimed for his neck and rasping the top of his right hand.

His demise was entirely self-inflicted: cutting a wide short ball from Sam Curran out to Jack Leach at deep point. And though the scorecard makes it look like Thirimanne learned from his partner’s mistake, he should have fallen to a similar fate by similar means.

Dom Sibley, though, grassed a simple chance for what would have been 117 for two. Thirimanne took the life on 51 to extend his score beyond 64, his highest score in 55 innings, some eight years ago.

Even Kusal Mendis, in possession of an Audi of scoreless innings (four rings), avoided an Olympic haul (five) with a single greeted like a newborn. He’d go on to pick up a first boundary in 64 deliveries that has stretched across six innings and two countries.

His would be England’s second dismissal, and one that gave the tourists hope. A reminder of the biting turn and bounce still on offer, and reassurance through Leach that the slower bowlers were finally gaining consistency. Jos Buttler’s take behind the stumps was also a sharp bit of work.

Though by no means terminal, the struggle was a nod to bigger, more prolonged challenges that England would likely confront later this winter. Sri Lanka, visibly more confident, will hope established players ruled out for this Test can recover in time for next week. Meanwhile, India, out in Australia trying to close out the fourth Test, will have noted flaws to exploit in their four Tests coming next month.

Nevertheless, English minds are on the job that needs to be right now. One which need not be as hard as they made it look today.

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