Sri Lanka hit back after maiden Robson ton
England 320 for 6 (Jordan 4*, Prior 3*) lead Sri Lanka 257 by 63 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Sam Robson. It is a name that signifies no messing, a straightforward, orthodox sort of name. It will sound even more upstanding to those who watched Sam Robson make his maiden Test hundred at Headingley.
Do not be fooled by the instant rewards of a hundred in only his second Test. Nothing is likely to come easily for Robson in his England Test career. He is a batsman of few fripperies, earnestly committed to the long haul. He made 127 before Nuwan Pradeep, armed with the second new ball, brought one back to strike his off stump, causing England to stumble to a lead of 63 with four wickets remaining by the close.
That lead is not what it should be. Sri Lanka made excellent use of that second new ball as evening cloud cover thickened. From 278 for 2, England subsided to 313 for 6. Joe Root was furious with himself at guiding Angelo Mathews to the wicketkeeper. Moeen Ali was worked over too easily for his own peace of mind, driving loosely at Shaminda Eranga, the innings of a Headingley ingénue. Sri Lanka are still in the Test, a reward for hanging in there.
The meat of the day for England - a slow roast - came in a second-wicket stand between Robson and Gary Ballance of 142 in 49 overs, a productive alliance between two new players to warm a selector's heart. Ballance was occasionally the more robust, but Robson possessed an understated quality.
There was also an overly cute innings of 64 from Ian Bell, who was warmly received on his 100th Test - proof of a more exalted status these days - and who provided the impetus England needed, but nevertheless seemed a little too lightsome, addicted to the back cut that has brought him so much sustenance over the past year. He was strangled down the leg side, flicking at a nondescript ball from Eranga.
Mathews, a reluctant fourth seamer, his injury issues no doubt at the forefront of his mind, bowled at around 75mph (120kph) yet drew as much seam and bounce as any Sri Lanka bowler from the surface. He could also have dismissed Matt Prior for nought but failed to hold a low catch as he dived heavily to his right. With worse luck, Prior's Test comeback could have resulted in three successive ducks.
But it was Robson's intensity which characterised this Test match Saturday. It was fancy dress day at Headingley, and alongside a motley collection of scouts, crusaders and mime artists, he enacted the role of a forensic scientist, microscope pressed firmly against his eye, rejecting excess, intent on the pursuit of evidence.
The crowd watched Robson patiently, but not as intently as Robson watched the ball. He might have been auditioning for a role in Silent Witness, except with the most adventurous lines removed from the script. He did not just watch the ball; he appeared to be looking for stray fibres which might just help him unravel the secrets of the game.
On this occasion, there were not too many secrets to unravel. Headingley can still become treacherous for batsmen when the mood takes it, but this was a day when it rolled over and allowed its tummy to be tickled. Sri Lanka's trio of frontline pace bowlers maintained disciplined lines, but they received little assistance and, as such, the procession of right-armers seeking to move the ball away from the right-hander became samey.
Robson looked quite mechanical on his Test debut at Lord's, tension no doubt contributing to that, but as he made unflustered progress, so his body relaxed. His strength looks to be the off-side drive, off the front foot, but partial to that shot or not, he was rarely drawn into extravagance.
This was a circumspect innings, one which at times made the longest day of the year seem a little longer, but one which steadily edged England into a position of authority on a day as they lost only one wicket in each of the first two sessions.
Alastair Cook, a captain uncertain in his game, continued to struggle, making 17 to follow scores of 17 and 28 in the first Test at Lord's. Headingley was the venue for his last Test century, but this year it was the source of more breast-beating. He fell to Dhammika Prasad, a bat dangler as he pushed forward half-heartedly, held low by Kumar Sangakkara at first slip.
Bowlers think that by maintaining a fuller length they have his measure. He will probably have to play forward for the rest of his Test career and he needs to find a response.
Robson's fifty had a dash of impatience as he forced Pradeep off the back foot between slip and gully. Concentration disturbed, he had a nibble at the next one and almost edged to the wicketkeeper. Slim and fresh faced, he quietly admonished himself: a silent witness to his own error.
Ballance approaches an innings, one suspects, with less complexity. When Sri Lanka pitched the ball around off stump, his surname was inappropriate; he was liable to get into a tangle. If he was a forensic scientist, he would drop the odd test tube. Give him a clip off his hips, the chance to sweep the spinner or to cut off the back foot and he looks more at home.
It took a successful England review to spare him on 33 when umpire Billy Bowden adjudged him lbw to Rangana Herath as he trudged inelegantly into a straight ball, only for replays to show the ball turning high and wide of leg stump. Herath was again unfortunate when Ballance was dropped at short leg on 61, Kaushal Silva failing to get down to a catch by his right boot. He finally succumbed to an innocuous length delivery from Mathews which he guided to the wicketkeeper.
A more flamboyant player might have wanted their maiden hundred won or lost before tea, but not Robson. Bell contrived to give him three deliveries in the penultimate over, against the left-arm spin of Herath, but he could not pierce the off-side field. He gave him another three balls on strike in the last over, against Mathews, but he could only pick off a single. Bell gave him another single. One ball left, one could imagine him telling himself to play it on its merits: he blocked it.
He addressed that in the second over after tea - chasing a wide, full one from Prasad and guiding it through cover. He even then skipped down the pitch to deposit Herath over long-on for six - and he only has half-a-dozen of those in his first-class career.
But as the new ball came, and Robson departed, Sri Lanka infiltrated England's celebrations, leaving Cook's expression on the dressing room balcony a touch more troubled than it had been an hour before. Robson, like many a measured batsman before him, was most appreciated after he was gone.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo