England v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Headingley, 2nd day May 20, 2016

Sri Lanka's worst fears

Since the retirement of Sri Lanka's big two batsmen there has been a lot of talk about what the new-look line-up needs to do, but the end product has been harder to find

"Will anybody stay to play?"

In July 2014, when Mahela Jayawardene announced his retirement, Angelo Mathews found himself asking Jayawardene if he would stay. "I tried to convince him to continue," Mathews said at the time. "But his mind was made up."

Much has been made of the runs and the experience Jayawardene took into retirement with him, but in his case, a keener loss was felt. Kumar Sangakkara was the greater Test batsman. But maybe having believed the press about his statuesque gait and features, Sangakkara often cut a motionless figure in the outfield, even when Mathews was captaining poorly. Jayawardene had been different. "Mahela's not afraid to let me know when I have to do something," Mathews had said. "He gives me so many options."

A few months later, when Sangakkara was considering retirement, Mathews had others do the asking for him. The sports minister and other high-ranking politicians piled on requests for him to stay on. Sangakkara was convinced eventually to extend his Test career a few months, yet that was not long enough for Mathews. Though in his farewell series Sangakkara was more irrigation channel than great batsman, forever redirecting R Ashwin balls to slip, Mathews still had been "on my knees, begging him not to retire."

On tours since, Mathews has called on his openers to stay at the crease. "We need to get through the new ball," is the constant refrain. As it did today, the call goes unheeded. On the previous tour of England, Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva had only once failed to last at least 10 new-ball overs, but since late 2014, scores of 2 for 2, 1 for 1, and 15 for 3 have been more common.

Balls out of James Anderson and Stuart Broad's hands described curves in the Headingley air, but from the top order, only Kusal Mendis received an unplayable delivery. Karunaratne wafted at a straightening ball, and a grazing edge was found. Silva's edge was similarly thin, but was to a rearing short ball. Ten for no loss slipped to 12 for 3 in minutes. Mathews strode quickly and purposefully into crisis again. Will anybody stay to play?

Dinesh Chandimal is a player, but is not often a stayer, needing to feel bat on ball early in the innings, always seeming tetchy when he is boundary-less for long. He and Mathews had seemed set for a reviving stand, until Chandimal prodded at a wider ball - the first after tea. Another edge was found and taken.

Lahiru Thirimanne has had the opposite problem. He has soaked up 2520 balls in Test cricket, and is yet to reach 1000 runs, usually playing himself into holes in his innings, rather than into form or runs. He is one of the few Mathews has encouraged to play, so he can stay. "On a difficult pitch you have to score runs where you can, because eventually a good ball will get you out," Mathews had often said through the home series in 2015. During that time, Thirimanne contributed scores like 10 off 45 and 12 off 47. In his defence, the hole at Headingley was of his team-mates' making, but still, he batted out 60 dot balls, and couldn't save his team from the follow-on.

The bowlers will sympathise with Mathews, so often having to strap on pads and helmets soon after having delivered long spells, but fans at home have begun to see him as the one competent man in their top order. Those fortunate enough to be spared by this week's floods and landslides sat watching late into the evening, finding threads of hope in the memories of 2014's impossible English heists. That series seems like faraway music now: the Sanga-Mahela duet at Lords, Mathews' roaring papare notes to follow. In the music's place, over the past 18 months, and today, there is now only a cacophony of nicks and edges.

"We have to look at the technical flaws in our games," Rangana Herath said of Friday's Headingley collapse. "There were some occasions when there were flaws against the fast bowlers. The series has just started. I trust that we will fix the problems and progress quickly."

It is a promise that, like Mathews' pleas to team-mates, has been often heard. For Mathews' own part, he got his ugly defence in order, hit 34 runs, batted out 61 balls, and was given out lbw on the 62nd. He had actually been struck outside the line, which is a fact he should have known, because he was consciously moving across the stumps in the balls leading up to the dismissal. But the raise of Rod Tucker's finger prompted only a cursory check with his batting partner, and Mathews strode off even quicker than he arrived.

As another collapse-spectacular occurred, on Friday, even Mathews didn't stay to play.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

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