Sri Lanka face bowling conundrum
"Change" has been the buzzword in Sri Lankan cricket over the past few months, and the Cardiff Test was the first serious cricket for its reconfigured squad. With four days done with and plenty of rain predicted on Monday, the visitors have learnt precious little about the identity of their best bowling attack.
If the Lord's pitch is one on which they can play only one specialist spinner, should it be the highly rated offspinner Suraj Randiv, the all-sorts spin of Ajantha Mendis or the steady, experienced left-arm offerings of Rangana Herath? Dilhara Fernando should walk into the attack if he recovers from his knee trouble and the left-arm quick Chanaka Welegedara waits in the wings, but with none of the three right-arm quicks making a convincing case in Cardiff, their pace bowling department also remains hard to predict.
"Nothing against Cardiff but wickets dead and nobody's interested, Ashes test was dull apart from last half hour," was Andrew Flintoff's Twitter verdict on this match midway through the third day. Unlike the Ashes Test, which ended with England hanging on to a thrilling draw after their final pair defied Australia for 11 overs, there is little chance of an exciting denouement this time, especially with England down to three specialist bowlers after the injury to James Anderson.
"This is a stop-start, stop-start Test match which is hard on the players," Farveez Maharoof said. "There is not much cricket played in this match, two innings not even completed in four days, you can't take much out of this Test match, we have already lost 100 overs."
Though it was mostly another day of hard labour for Sri Lanka's bowlers - only three wickets going down - there were far more chances created, and there were clear ploys to constrict the England batting early in the afternoon. Some quick runs at the start of play, especially with Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott already past their centuries, could have given the more enterprising batsmen to follow - Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan - the freedom to play the big shots and leave Sri Lanka facing a battle on the final day.
Instead, the runs came in a trickle. Herath bowled a marathon 21-over spell from the River Taff End, coming over the wicket and into the rough created by the quicks. The leg-stump line stifled Trott, who resisted any urge to go for a big against-the-turn swipe towards midwicket.
At the other end, Maharoof operated with a 7-2 off-side field, with only deep square-leg and a slightly deep mid-on on the leg side. Consistently keeping the ball outside off, with a wall of fielders protecting the runs, England were shackled though the wickets remained intact.
"It was a tough day at the office, credit should go to the English batsmen," Maharoof said. "They batted really well. Personally I'm coming back after three and a half years, it is tough, but that is what Test cricket is all about."
It was only in the last hour or so that Sri Lanka started to leak the runs, with England piling on 84 in the final 18 overs. "Most of our bowlers bowled pretty well, we had a plan and we stuck to it," Maharoof said. "In the latter part we let them go, we could have been more consistent with our lines and lengths."
Surprisgly Mendis, one of the more threatening bowlers on Saturday, was given only three overs during the day. Whether that was a strategy to keep him hidden from the marauding England batsmen for future challenges or an indication that he is going to be left out of the Lord's Test remains to be seen. With England likely to declare early on the final day to push their remote chances of victory, it will be interesting to see what bowling line-up the new Sri Lanka team management picks next week.