Batsmen climb the learning curve
England know their reputation has taken a battering in the last few months. Even if they do win this Test and retain their No. 1 status, which is now a distinct possibility, too much has gone badly in the first few months of this year to put it all in the past with a single success. However, it would allow them to return home with some evidence that lessons have been learned and their efforts over the first two days at the P Sara Oval have shown they will expend every drop of energy to end the run of defeats.
First it was the bowlers - as ever, outstanding - before something different began to emerge. The batting line-up was given a platform as Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook added 122. Their previous best this year was 48. Outwardly it was not a partnership to send the crowd into raptures but, given that the stadium was packed with England fans, it did just that, after the collapses they have sat through. Each milestone - the fifty, the hundred, Strauss' fifty and Cook's fifty - was greeted with acclaim ranging from hearty applause to a standing ovation.
"It was a very good day," Graeme Swann said. "Four wickets quickly and cheaply was important, but probably more importantly for the vibe in dressing room was a solid start and we are delighted how it's panned out. We've had some very good days scuppered by bad ones and this was probably the most complete day."
One the problems for the England batting line-up has been finding the happy medium between attack and defence. It went horribly wrong in the first innings in Galle but Jonathan Trott's century in the second was the perfect template to work from. In Strauss and Cook there were two batsmen with the ideal game to follow suit.
Both of them, but especially Cook, are at their best when they bat time and wear the bowlers down. Some might call it old fashioned and it is a trait that is seen less and less in Test cricket these days. The value of a wicket has seemingly been reduced or the balance of risk and reward has altered. That is not bad thing - Test cricket now is as entertaining as it has ever been - but there is still a place for graft.
Not everyone will play like Strauss and Cook. On the third day Kevin Pietersen will get a chance to bat and is likely to try and dominate, so too Ian Bell and Matt Prior. But that is more their natural game. Crucially, Strauss and Cook kept the strike rotating. It took Rangana Herath, the matchwinner in Galle with 12 wickets, 16 overs to bowl a maiden. Although both openers are left-handed, so a change of line is not an issue for the bowler, plans still need to be adjusted each time they swap ends.
Tellingly, too, the batsmen were far less reliant on the sweep. It was not until the 39th over that one was played - by Strauss - although Cook did later go against the grain by unfurling a reverse sweep. Swann, though, said there had not been any team discussions about leaving aside a shot that contributed to England's downfall in Galle.
"We have worked on things we should and shouldn't do but the sweep is valid if executed to the right ball. That was the point some of the batsmen, including me, missed in last game and sweeping the wrong one can make you look a mug. It would be very dangerous to disregard the shot. It's a pain for the bowler if the bloke's sweeping."
This was also a truer reflection of the strengths of Sri Lanka's bowling attack. That is not meant as a slight on any of them, but the lowest average is Herath's 32. They are honest and hardworking, not world-beaters. The two seamers, Dhammika Prasad and Suranga Lakmal who average 61 and 57 respectively, kept plugging away but were nowhere near matching the threat of England's.
"We bowled well in patches," Angelo Mathews said, "but we were not consistent enough. The pitch is quite tough to score on but we need to get some early wickets in the morning to claw them back."
England have to been wary about letting the position slip. This is a very similar situation to the one they found themselves in against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. After being humbled in three days during the first Test they then bowled out Pakistan for 257 and were 166 for 1 with Cook and Trott together. That was also when they had managed their only previous wicketless full session this year, before Strauss and Cook batted between lunch and tea here.
Yet from that position of strength England could not keep hold. The lead was restricted to 70 and chasing 145 on wearing pitch proved far too much as they crumbled for 72. This is not the first time England have been in a good position to win a Test in recent months. The next three days will show how many lessons have really been learnt.
Edited by Alan Gardner
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo