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Sri Lanka arrived at Lord's on the cloud of confidence their limited-overs cricket has generated, but on a tour in which they have sometimes felt besieged they failed to press home an early advantage on the sport's most celebrated stage
Andrew Fidel Fernando at Lord's
June 12, 2014
At the tail-end of 2012, Sri Lanka's last marquee Test became one of their lowest points in their professional era. On a springy but manageable Melbourne deck, the batsmen collapsed twice, fielders shelled simple chances, and bowlers surrendered easy runs.
At the end of the debacle, Sri Lanka's coach spoke of how the team had perhaps imploded under the pressure they had loaded on themselves. That match had been the cricketing equivalent of going to the biggest job interview of your life, only to race manically around the room, having somehow set your own pants on fire.
Eighteen months on, Sri Lanka arrived at Lord's on the cloud of confidence their limited-overs cricket has generated. They have only played one full tour against a top-eight side in the interim, but on a tour in which they have sometimes felt besieged, Sri Lanka yearned to prove themselves on the sport's most celebrated stage.
They have been the boys who excel in blue for some time, but here, with a full-house 28,000 strong in attendance, they might have been the men who shone in white as well.
The first three hours had been so promising. Nuwan Pradeep - the catalyst of Sri Lanka's best win of the year in Dubai - had the ball swerving sharp and late, while Nuwan Kulasekara boarded up one end, pitching the ball on the straight and moving it down the slope. That mix of security and venom lured a muddled innings from Alastair Cook and loose strokes from Sam Robson and Gary Ballance.
There was energy in the field and vocal support for the men in the ring. At one stage, Kulasekara, who rarely clocks in at over 130kph, had four slips and a gully. Ambitious though the plan was, it suggested a brimming over of belief; a team riding on momentum, feeding off good vibes. In Melbourne, Sri Lanka had meandered listlessly, but here was heartening direction: clear plans, and fleshed out lines of attack.
But how quickly bad habits can return. In Australia, Sri Lanka had allowed the opposition to beat them back again and again whenever they threatened an advance, and at Lord's a swift partnership between debutant Moeen Ali and embattled Joe Root stole the visitors' initiative. Rangana Herath toiled on an unresponsive surface, but as the sun beat down on the quickly-browning pitch, the fast men wilted around him. It didn't help that the surface flattened quicker than Sri Lanka had anticipated at the toss.
"We thought the pitch would have more bounce and pace than it did," Kaushal Silva said. "But maybe at the latter part of the day it got slower. Sometimes the odd ball was keeping low as well. Hopefully, tomorrow morning, with the new ball in our hand, we can do something."
Angelo Mathews' decision to bowl first with blue sky overhead raised English eyebrows early on, but it was an understandable, given the top order's history. Sri Lanka coped with the moving ball in the ODIs, thanks in part to Tillakaratne Dilshan's circumspection, but those skills have sometimes diminished when a red ball series arrives. Even at home, Sri Lanka have collapsed against good swing bowling. Knowing his attack is doughty rather than indomitable, Mathews had perhaps reasoned the zip in the pitch represented Sri Lanka's only chance of achieving a definitive edge with the ball.
"When you have the advantage of a green pitch, you should take that. We have three quality fast bowlers, so there was doubt for Angie to take that decision."
Sri Lanka's decision to rest their spearhead-by-default Shaminda Eranga in the Northampton match, also had creditable reasons. Eranga had not played competitively since injuring his ankle in Bangladesh in February, but with Suranga Lakmal already laid low, Sri Lanka felt it wise to preserve him. He has returned from long breaks to deliver long, testing spells in the past, and he was perhaps entitled to a poor day on this return. He swung the ball at pace at times, but an economy rate of 4.77 was a fair reflection of his waywardness.
As evening came on, Sri Lanka began to serve up freebies, allowing Root unchecked progress to his hundred, and Matt Prior a smooth return to his free-flowing best. In the last half-a-session, England raced on at close to five runs an over.
Sri Lanka's attack has only succeeded when it has hunted as a pack and made run-making difficult on unresponsive surfaces. A poor end to this day may not necessarily spell doom for the Test, but already outgunned in English conditions, Sri Lanka cannot afford too many sessions like it.
At 344 for 5 and two men well set, England have the firmer grip on the match. Sri Lanka have so often been tenacious in ODIs and T20s, roaring back from near-impossible situations, refusing to accept defeat. If they can discover some of that intensity in whites, they may tip the match back in their favour and avoid another disappointment at one of cricket's cherished venues.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernandoFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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