England v Sri Lanka, 1st Investec Test, Lord's, 3rd day June 14, 2014

Positive England avoid falling flat

The pitch has not been the seam-friendly surface Alastair Cook might have anticipated but it stretched his captaincy as England's bowlers strived to find a way through

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There was a power cut at Lord's on Saturday - apparently caused by too much weight on the Nursery Ground - as Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene were building their 17th century stand in Test cricket. It prompted Russell Arnold, the former Sri Lanka batsman turned TV commentator, to say on air: "It's so like Colombo - sun shining, power cut in media centre and a 100 partnership by Mahela and Sanga."

The pitch was docile, too, if not quite in the league of the SSC in Colombo. England did not want the ball to scuttle through at ankle height, or not even reach the keeper. They did not want the pitch to sap the life out of deliveries hurled down by their four fast bowlers. Not that it should always be about what England want (although what is wrong with home advantage?) but there was certainly no early helping hand for the beginning of England's era where pace bowling will need to dominate for them to find success.

In the days leading up to this Test, Alastair Cook said he had never seen a pitch so green at Lord's and England would have been encouraged by what they saw. However, it is not so much the colour of the grass that matters - although English quicks will never bemoan a nice emerald surface - but the pace and carry which means edges carry and techniques are tested, especially for Asian sides.

The MCC, as the independent arbitrators of the game, do not see it as their role to offer any side a particular advantage but they want to produce pitches that are good for Test cricket. It remains debatable whether this is leaning too far one way.

England's end result of six wickets in the day was a commendable effort, reward for unstinting toil, and leaves open the possibility of a result if Sri Lanka's tail folds quickly on Sunday. James Anderson was superb, especially in his first spell of 7-3-12-1 and then his working over of Lahiru Thirimanne, but it was the stamina of Liam Plunkett and Chris Jordan, particularly the former in a nine-over spell late in the day, which was praiseworthy.

A look at Plunkett's figures without seeing the context of the day could easily lead you to question the value of his effort: 30-2-113-1 is hardly flattering. However, he performed the role Cook asked of him.

Either side of lunch he targeted Jayawardene's gloves and ribs from around the wicket - there was barely a delivery in Jayawardene's half of the pitch, although he said he was "quite happy" with England's tactics instead of pitching the ball fuller - and on a surface with a touch more pace it would have been harder for Jayawardene to withstand the assault. In his final over the day he was still pushing the speedgun to 90mph.

"We were saying to the bowlers just now what a good effort it was, they've run in and kept going," Paul Farbrace, England's assistant coach, said. "I think Liam's performance at the end there, a nine-over spell, and in his last over clocking 90-93mph sums up the performance of the day. It is an unresponsive pitch but the key today is making sure that we don't get into the frame of mind of talking about no pace, no bounce, just maintaining a good plan. We talked about using the short ball well and got our just rewards tonight."

There was a late, much deserved, wicket for Plunkett as Prasanna Jayawardene flicked to leg slip. Luck was involved, yes, but Cook had the man in the right position

Last season England were happy, almost gleeful, at grubby, slow pitches that would offer turn for Graeme Swann and scuff up the ball for reverse swing. That was good for England, but not always good for the cricket on display. In theory, the switch of modus operandi to a pace-heavy attack, forced by Swann's retirement, should encourage the production of pitches with more life: it could be mutually beneficial.

"Bowlers always want more pace and bounce," Farbrace said. "The key is it's what we've got and we've got to get on and play. We've got to make sure we bowl according to the surface you have. You will have different surfaces around the world. You don't always get what you want. There's been no moaning, they've just got on with it."

To be fair to Mick Hunt, the groundsman, draws at Lord's have been a rarer species of late (and, who knows, this might not be one yet) after a period of six consecutive stalemates from 2006 to 2008. The previous one was in 2011 when Sri Lanka previously visited. There are notable similarities to what has emerged here: England made a big total, 486 on that occasion, after being in some bother at 22 for 3 and 201 for 5 before the lower order rallied, then Sri Lanka replied with 479, which virtually killed off the contest although a delayed declaration by Andrew Strauss also played a part.

If England do secure a handy lead the way they play their second innings will be another good test of Cook's captaincy. The side as a whole, from the moment they went at four-an-over in the first session of the match, have played with positive intent in this match. It was instructive to watch Cook in the field today. Occasionally a deep point was in place - some habits die hard - but neither was he afraid to think more out-of-the-box.

There was not a line of attack that England did not try and Cook tried plenty with his field, too. He certainly got funky at times, although whether being off the field when Sangakkara edged Moeen Ali can qualify is probably stretching things.

When Plunkett came around the wicket after lunch there was one man in front of square on the off side and that was the captain himself at silly point. Elsewhere there was a slip, a leg slip a short leg, and two men out on the hook. When Sangakkara was on strike, there were three men in a line from short leg to deep square-leg.

In the last over before tea there were six men on the leg side, no conventional slips and Cook wandered backwards towards a deep fly slip. Then there was Plunkett's late, much deserved, wicket as Prasanna Jayawardene flicked to leg slip. Luck was involved, yes, but Cook had the man in the right position. Whether it was funky captaincy or not, he will need some more of it to conjure a victory.

Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Roshan on June 15, 2014, 9:14 GMT

    England have a serious selection dilemma here. Panesar should without a doubt play as he is England's best spinner now, and Ali will most likely make way for Stokes and become a second choice all-rounder. That means one of the oace bowlers will have to make way for Panesar, but who? Plunkett and Jordan have bowled admirably on a flat surface. Arguably Plunkett has something different in his pace and stamina but Jordan is also a very skilful bowler. Anderson and Broad have their places cemented, and there is also Onions and Finn on the fringes.

    Then in the batting order many are calling for Taylor and Compton. I personally haven't seen Taylor but he seems a good prospect. I do know that Compton is a good solid player and would be ideal at 3. But then there is Ballance, who is a good batsman, Joe Root who you wouldn't really drop now and Robson who also shows promise.

  • Roshan on June 15, 2014, 9:04 GMT

    I think there is going to be a real selectio n dilemma for England here. In my opinion Panesar has to come in as he is England's best spinner, and England should use him until he retires by which time Kerrigan and Borthwick etc. should be up to scratch. Ali will most likely make way for Stokes later on and become a second or third choice all-rounder, so Panesar will need to come in for a pace bowler. However Anderson and Broad have their places cemented, and both Jordan and Plunkett have bowled admirably on a flat surface here. After this series we need to see who should stay, and that is without considering Onions and Finn.

    Then in the batting order many people are calling for Taylor, Compton or Vince to come in. I personally think Compt

  • Dummy4 on June 15, 2014, 7:39 GMT

    I am terribly sorry but i fail to see how Alastair Cook has been positive in this game. Delaying a declaration, having too many boundary fielders and generally just letting things happen.

  • Prem on June 15, 2014, 1:27 GMT

    England want anything but a loss to be able to end their 5 Test losing streak so they would be happy to sacrifice a win by preparing a docile pitch. ECB is gone crazy.

  • John on June 15, 2014, 1:03 GMT

    The one thing I'd have liked to see Cook do differently was use Jordan in 3/4 over spells bowling as fast as possible. With 575 on the board, a bit of wildness wouldn't matter, as MJ showed for Australia.

    Otherwise, a pretty solid performance by England.

  • Nicholas on June 14, 2014, 21:15 GMT

    I don't question the players' effort or talents (even if those talents are hidden a bit too often for us fans' liking); what I do question is England's logic & preparation before games, and series even. Now it's all very well for me to come on here and discuss in hindsight, but is going into a test series without a frontline spinner (preferably a wrist-spinner) really that smart and forward thinking? Is preparing a flat pitch at the home of cricket against some of the greatest batsmen of this decade really a clever, exciting thing to do for World test cricket which is rapidly losing fans on a daily basis?

    Not too long ago, we were promised a rejuvenated, positive + exciting England team that would come out playing for the win as much as possible. We seem to be definitely getting there, with new guys coming into the team, & very promising signs with the bat during the first two days of this game and positive intent from most of the players. But remember the basics! 20 wickets please!

  • Ranil on June 14, 2014, 20:55 GMT

    Plunketts burst at the end over 90mph was a real effort & brought life to the game. However it did not bother Sanga & he scored well off him showing the greatness of his century.A good bat & ball contest was that.Will there be another story here,Sanga coming & scoring another century in the last innings.

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