Dilshan's vivid riposte to the sceptics
With the sun on their backs and their brains on the game, Sri Lanka's batsmen proved a formidable proposition at Lord's today. At Cardiff, distraction had given way to panic as England, in Andrew Strauss's words, "burgled" a victory on the final rain-affected day. Five days later, and with all manner of points to prove to a sceptical press and public, they restored their credibility, and more, with a day of relentless batting.
Not only did Sri Lanka's openers Tillakaratne Dilshan and Tharanga Paranavitana add more than twice the 82 runs that their entire team had mustered at the start of the week, in the process they smashed Sri Lanka's first-wicket record in 23 Tests against England. Curiously, given their propensity for vast totals against England, particularly in home conditions, the 113 that Sanath Jayasuriya and Michael Vandort added at Kandy in 2007-08 had been the only previous occasion that any pair of openers had passed three figures together.
It was a vivid riposte in a difficult week for Sri Lanka, but a particularly timely one for the captain Dilshan. He had worn his team's inadequacies with a resigned shrug after Cardiff, writing them off as an anomaly and backing the same lop-sided line-up to prove its mettle. "At this level you can't keep hiding people," said their batting coach, Marvan Atapattu, on the first evening, in response to suggestions that Sri Lanka had ducked the rematch by choosing to bowl first. "The brand of cricket Sri Lanka plays is to win."
Those words don't sound quite so hollow now. At the first time of asking, Dilshan restored his team's pride in the manner that marks out all the best leaders of men. He might not have the gravitas of his predecessors, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, but he certainly has standing within the dressing room - enhanced by his skill as a batsman and by the challenges he's faced and surmounted in the course of his 12-year Test career.
As the son of a Muslim father and a Sinhalese mother, Dilshan had hurdles to overcome in his early days that other cricketers would never encounter in the first place, and for three prime years between 2001 and 2003, he was an outsider looking in. There are no survivors in the England dressing room from his century he produced in his comeback Test at Kandy in December 2003. However, Nos. 3, 4 and 5 in Sri Lanka's current middle order were all alongside him that day, and every one of them witnessed the alacrity with which he seized his moment.
"He's a very positive guy by nature - positive and aggressive," said Dilshan's team-mate, Farveez Maharoof. "He's been scoring runs all tour while captaining the side really well, and he's been in amazing form for the last two years. A Lord's Test hundred is very special for him, and hopefully he'll kick on, because when the skipper is performing it's always good for the team."
In execution it was not Dilshan's most flawless innings - but then again, he's racked up a fair few points of comparison in recent months. In terms of intent, however, it was up there with his best, not least for the way he overcame a crushing blow to the right thumb from Chris Tremlett in the second over after tea, as a sharp lifter tore his glove from the bat handle and made it flap like the flags above the pavilion. A precautionary X-ray followed at the close of play, but by that stage he'd defied the damage to add 72 unbeaten runs to his total.
Damage defiance has been the mot juste for Sri Lanka in this Test. "Forget day five," was the command from Mahela Jayawardene in the immediate aftermath of Cardiff, and with bat and with ball they've set out to do just that. They were thwarted by England's batsmen in the latter stages of the first innings, although that did not entirely detract from the scare an unfancied attack had caused in the first two sessions, and now, with Paranavitana producing another sheet-anchor performance, they've set about flipping their expectations once again.
At Derby last month, in Sri Lanka's final warm-up before the first Test, both men scored centuries to beat the England Lions after following on, and Dilshan himself has now scored four hundreds and a half-century in his last five games against English opposition. Any side that can saunter into a World Cup semi-final without losing a single wicket chasing 230, as Sri Lanka did in Colombo back in March, can find the spirit to put a bad 24.4 overs out of sight and out of mind. Also, to paraphrase Keith Miller's famous quote about Messerschmidts, any group of players that has come through the horrors of Lahore knows how to avoid getting stressed about a bad day in the office.
Thanks to the size of England's own first innings, Sri Lanka's response might not be enough to restore the balance of the series - unless they can do a Cardiff and build themselves a lead. However, a third consecutive Lord's draw is now firmly on the cards. England did not bowl dreadfully, with Graeme Swann proving once again to be a threat to both sides of the bat, but collectively they lacked the inspiration of that last outing, and individually they offered too many chinks in the armour. In that respect, Steven Finn's return proved a particular disappointment.
Much had been made of the tallest attack in Test history, with Finn's return on his home ground a given from the moment James Anderson was ruled out with a side strain. England have not forgotten his efforts in the Ashes, particularly his performance in Adelaide, when he battled against his already faltering rhythm to help deliver victory before the rain arrived on the final afternoon of the match. The word from Middlesex was of a bowler who'd rediscovered his balance and parsimony, and though he once again displayed his happy knack for breakthroughs, he shed his runs at 4 an over throughout.
Finn was not alone in disappointing. Stuart Broad may have taken over from Anderson as the leader of the attack, but in the eyes of the public who flocked to Lord's on a glorious day for cricket, this was Chris Tremlett's first outing as the recognised pick of the bowlers. He responded with intermittent moments of menace, not least Dilshan's thumb-squasher, but in between whiles he bowled both sides of the wicket, as unsure of the right length on a flattening wicket as he had been dead-certain on that final day in Cardiff. In hindsight, the variety in Jade Dernbach's repertoire might well have come in handy.
This, however, was Sri Lanka's day in the sun, the spiritual successor to their glorious rearguard in 2006, when they once again confounded expectations to close out the final 199 overs of the match. Like Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart in Bridgetown in 1993-94, in response to England's 46 all out in Trinidad, a pair of openers reset their team's agenda at the moment when most observers assumed it had been shredded. If Sangakkara and Jayawardene can follow the example set by their captain, there's plenty time in this contest for England to feel the squeeze of the runs-time equation.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo