Eranga leads Sri Lanka's survivors
The Sri Lankan community in Leeds is small and scattered. Only a smattering turned out at a sold-out Headingley on Saturday. It is partly because the Sri Lanka fans abroad are yet to develop a taste for days out at a Test, much like the hordes at home. Maybe there are more pragmatic reasons as well. This Sri Lanka team, with this bowling attack, will inevitably spend long, tortuous days in the field. Many times, there are modest rewards for the team, and their supporters.
On social media, Sri Lanka fans likened most of the day's play to watching plants grow, but that is exactly what the team is doing too. This is a green pace attack, on their first trip to England. There is a little bit about each bowler that suggests they could be a force in Test cricket in the future. But for now, Sri Lanka is tending shoots, hoping the opposition do not trample on them too heavily. The pitches at home are about as lively for seamers as Colombo morgue. In recent years, good fast bowlers have lined up at the hospital as well, with long-term, career-threatening injuries.
Another day of toil seemed to be firming up at Headingley, until finally, their luck turned. On the whole, Sri Lanka's attack might reflect they did not bowl to their potential, but for Shaminda Eranga, it had been a different kind of day altogether.
In the morning he had swung the ball the most, and had the batsmen missing so emphatically that their photographs should have been printed on milk cartons. Post-delivery stride, Eranga's hands would clutch at his head, almost by reflex.
Later in the day, the ball grew soft, but Eranga's effort remained undiminished. He had bowled 48 overs at Lord's - more than any other quick in the attack. In the first innings here, he has sent down more overs, than any bowler, from either team. He also has the best economy rate, at 2.33. Of the six boundaries he has conceded in the innings, four have come off edges. The other two were drives off the front foot. Swinging it away from the right handers, closing the lefties up, off the seam, Eranga begged for a wicket with his body language. His pitch map screamed out for it.
England had gunned Sri Lanka down with their wicked, varied arsenal on the opening day, but Eranga's method was working class to the core. It is not difficult to see why he endures through long, luckless spells better than most. He has done it that way all his life.
Growing up in a small fishing town on Sri Lanka's west coast, Eranga's father died when he was 10, thinning the family's already slim resources, to say nothing of the trauma. There were no high-flying cricket leagues for his school, no accredited coaches in the area. He had not even placed in the top five in the pace-bowling contest that earned him his big break.
When he won through to under-23 cricket, Eranga would board a bus in Chilaw before dawn, play a full day's cricket in Colombo, then return home at close to 11pm. When he played three-dayers, he sometimes repeated this gruelling routine thrice in a row. No easy way to chase a far-off dream. But then, Eranga barely had a choice.
Earlier this year, in the UAE, Eranga delivered 130.3 overs inside 21 days, went at 2.64, and averaged less than 30. Then, as at Headingley, his wickets did not so much bring him joy, as they gave him relief. Only when Ian Bell glanced a rare bad ball through to the keeper did Eranga allow himself a smile on Saturday. Taken in isolation, that wicket was a lucky dismissal. Maybe Eranga's smile was at how comical cricket can be sometimes.
At times in the day, other bowlers were wayward from the opposite end. There were no shelled catches off Eranga, but Sri Lanka missed three clear-cut chances and a difficult fourth. At least behind the stumps, Eranga had a kindred soul.
Dinesh Chandimal kept faultlessly through the day, with unflagging energy. At the end of almost every over, he would race through to give the bowler a pat on the back, and a few kind words. His attention spread to the fielders as well, as he clapped on at his post, chirping into the evening. In between, he pouched four good catches, including both of Eranga's scalps.
From modest beginnings himself, Chandimal has lost everything in a tsunami, then gone on to cricket acclaim at one of the nation's top schools, in his own, homespun style. As the Sri Lanka team gradually moves beyond its Colombo-centrism, perhaps more deserving men, who have done it tough, will play for their country. They know a day on their feet at Headingley is no great difficulty, in the grand scheme. It is the staying up, and staying hungry that matters.
The few Sri Lankans in the stands will have been lifted toward the close. But the Yorkshire crowd went home happy as well. They watched a local lad hit fifty. Another youngster scored a ton. For Sri Lanka, it was a day of grit. A day of honest work and belated reward. It was a day for their survivors.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando