Joe Root could scarcely have wished for a better start to England’s epic year of Test cricket, walking off at stumps on day one in Galle with 66 runs to his name and his side a whisker from parity following a remarkable collapse by Sri Lanka.
Dom Bess had picked up his second five-wicket haul for England but even he admitted afterwards this sat towards the fortuitous end of the spectrum, as a cascade of poor shots and freakish dismissals – plus three victims for the impressive Stuart Broad – saw the hosts rolled for 135 in 46.1 overs.
With Root and Jonny Bairstow combining for an unbroken stand of 110 – the latter three short of a half-century on his return to the side following a year-long absence – England had held firm on a pitch offering plenty for the spinners, closing on 127 for two and allaying concerns about their lack of cricket in the buildup.
Sri Lanka’s day began in ominous fashion when Dimuth Karunaratne felt unable to play through the pain of fractured thumb suffered during his side’s 2-0 defeat in South Africa. Not only had the hosts lost the calming presence of their captain, but also one of the few reliable sources of runs in their batting lineup.
However, his absence could not excuse what followed after Dinesh Chandimal took over the captaincy and won the toss. An array of ill-judged shots produced the lowest total by a side batting first in Galle and utter exasperation from Mickey Arthur, their typically expressive head coach, on the pavilion balcony.
On another day it might have been Broad leading England off the field in the afternoon following this particular slice of history. Having nudged Jimmy Anderson out of the XI, the 34-year-old picked up his best figures in Sri Lanka of three for 20 and with it doubled his tally of wickets on the island in the process.
Broad’s recent golden form has been about making the batsmen play more often and here he zoned in on the stumps in a five-over opening burst that left him both red-faced and visibly blowing from the draining heat, but with the wickets of Lahiru Thirimanne and Kusal Mendis to show for it.
Smart captaincy and a soft shot accounted for Thirimanne, clipping one straight to Bairstow at leg gully, before Broad then inflicted the dreaded “Audi” on Mendis two deliveries later – the right-hander’s fourth successive duck in Test cricket – by rolling his fingers over the ball for a leg-cutter that found the edge.
While Sam Curran kept it tight with the new ball, and Mark Wood regularly topped 90mph as he peppered the fit-again Angelo Mathews and even broke one of his bats, how England fared on this typically slow, low Galle pitch was always going to be down to the spin of Bess and Jack Leach – not that their final rewards necessarily reflected how well they bowled here.
This is their first Test match in tandem. Yet while Leach appeared the far greater threat, overcoming an early missed catch in the deep and settling into a groove in his first England appearance for over a year, it was Bess who was lifting the ball to the absent stands by the end of the innings.
His seemingly golden arm initially produced a wicket second ball when the opener Kusal Perera gloved a startling reverse sweep. And though Mathew and Chandimal made it to lunch at 65 for three – the latter profiting from debutant Dan Lawrence grassing an easy chance off Leach at cover – it did not take long for England to remove the pair after the resumption.
Broad set the tone once more as Mathews tamely edged to slip on 27, before Chandimal mistimed a drive off Leach to a grateful Curran at cover on 28. When the wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella slashed a rank long-hop from Bess to point, there was a sense this might be the off-spinner’s day.
Certainly there was luck at play with the subsequent dismissal of Dasun Shanaka, who saw a sweep inadvertently backheeled by Bairstow at short-leg into the gloves of Jos Buttler, but Bess could at least take pride in the ball that beat Dilruwan Perera through the air for a sweet clean bowled.
Further misfortune then came for Sri Lanka when Lasith Embuldeniya was run out at the non-striker’s end via Leach’s fingertips, with their collapse of seven for 54 completed – and rather summed up – as Wanindu Hasaranga attempted to reverse-sweep Bess but instead gifted the 23-year-old his fifth, another clean-bowled.
Embuldeniya, a left-arm spinner with a casual approach and big hands, did puncture two early holes in England’s lineup when teasing an edge off Dom Sibley for four and persuading Zak Crawley to loft a checked drive to mid-off on nine.
But with Root and Bairstow holding firm against Sri Lanka’s three-pronged spin attack and using the sweep shot to good effect – albeit with the former successfully overturning an lbw off Embuldeniya on 20 – the tourists had taken full control of proceedings and started 2021 in fine style.