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England recovered from a less-than-perfect performance on the third day to rattle through Sri Lanka's lower order and build a solid lead
June 6, 2011
If England were anxious, they hid it well today. If - as their bowling coach, David Saker, had suggested - their pacemen had been suffering from technical issues, they were quickly resolved by a freshened wicket and an encouraging desire to clean up their own mess. If the loss of Andrew Strauss to the second ball of the innings sent a wave of unease through the dressing-room, the old faithful alliance of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott quickly steadied the team's equilibrium.
And if Kevin Pietersen was on edge as Rangana Herath turned the screw in the closing overs, his survival to the close at least bought him the chance to plead his case in broad daylight tomorrow, and maybe even play his natural attacking game. With 98 overs to play with, a ballistic assault of the type every opponent knows is possible would leave plenty time for another remarkable finish to this match.
All in all for England, it was a bright response to a gloomy day at Lord's. There was plenty that could, and maybe would, have gone wrong, had the team not found a way to buck up its ideas, and fend off the threat of an awkward final day. Instead, by the close, it was Sri Lanka who were facing the prospect of another test of their resolve, thanks to an impressively rapid half-century from Jonathan Trott and a bowling performance that didn't come close to the magnificence of Cardiff, but was an exponential improvement on the wayward fare of the third morning.
"From the position we were in at the end of the second day, we've fought back in this game fantastically well," said Steven Finn, whose 4 for 108 enabled him to eclipse Ian Botham as England's youngest bowler to 50 Test wickets. "We're in a great position to push on tomorrow. We're not looking beyond that first hour, but we'll look to consolidate in the first hour and push on from there."
Finn's performance in particular had come in for scrutiny on Sunday, but his response this morning showed all the maturity that earned him an Ashes starting berth. His end-of-day talk of "processes" and "good areas" may have been cliché-speak beyond compare, but seeing as hitting a good length had been the nub of the problem in the early part of the innings, there wasn't much more that could be said.
"Sri Lanka's batsmen are allowed to play well, and Tillakaratne Dilshan played exceptionally well on a day when the ball didn't do anything at all," said Finn. "He scored 190 of 470-odd, so they relied on him quite heavily, but towards the latter stage of their innings we stuck to our guns well, and to take seven wickets in a session today reinforced the fact that when we put the ball in the right area, it does the talking."
When this England team gets on a roll, it can be incredibly hard to stop. From the moment of Dilshan's dismissal on Sunday evening, England claimed Sri Lanka's last eight wickets for 109, including seven for 85 in 22.5 overs today - numbers which aren't entirely dissimilar to the 10 for 82 in 24.4 that shocked both sides in Cardiff last week.
"When the pressure is on you certain things can go awry, and when the pressure's on the batsmen they can play poor shots," Finn added. "But we don't dwell on negatives, on things we've done badly. We can look back with smiley faces on what we have achieved so far, but we can look with great hunger and desire at what lies ahead for us. We know we've got the attack to test any Test team in the world.
"There's been a huge momentum shift in the game since the beginning of today. The Sri Lankan batsmen could have come out and could still be batting now and be in a great position. But for us to take seven wickets in that afternoon session and be 150 ahead with two down and some of the batsman we have, I think we're in a fantastic position."
It would take a bizarre set of circumstances for either side to lose from here - certainly, in Sri Lanka's case, there's surely no way they'll be caught napping in quite the same manner. But then again, not even the Sri Lankans themselves pretend that they don't have a soft underbelly. Their justified faith in the excellence of their top order allows them to pack their attack with five frontline options, and play to win at all times. It's an admirable attitude, but as witnessed last Monday, the down-side can be dramatic.
Nevertheless, when the first of those bowling options, Chanaka Welegedara, reawakened Strauss's doubts against left-arm quicks by scalping him in the opening over, it took a performance of stiff resolve in the fading light to guard against further damage. If anything, Alastair Cook's voracious appetite for run-harvesting has been sharpened by his loose pull on 96 in the first innings, as he buckled down for another 41-over stint and blunted the threat of the new ball.
However, it was the free-flowing Trott who really set the agenda, puncturing the off side with drives that scarcely registered, and clipping off the toes with customary nonchalance. It is a mark of his class that he never seems hurried, but on this occasion he most definitely got a move on, as demonstrated by the unexpectedly loose manner of his departure, playing all round a full ball in Herath's first over.
By that stage, however, the sting of the session had been drawn, even though Pietersen's latest trial by left-arm spin ensured the closing overs of the day remained compelling. Throughout it all, Finn sat in the hot-seat on the pavilion balcony - the designated nightwatchman in James Anderson's absence. "I had the pads on, the chest pad, thigh pad, the lot, two boxes. I was ready to go out there and do it if I had to," he said. "But thankfully the two guys out there held their positions and played well."
There's little point in second-guessing how the final day will pan out, given how extraordinary the first Test proved to be, but the confidence of a restored ascendancy will surely lift England's game while putting the squeeze back on Sri Lanka. "Hopefully it will stay overcast and there will be enough in the wicket," said Finn. "If we get a go at them tomorrow and put the ball in the right area, there will definitely be enough pressure on them, and enough doubt in their mind to hopefully spread some fear."
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