Lions seamers unpick preconceptions
Sri Lanka A 281 for 9 (Onions 4-20) v England Lions
There have been several accusations made of England's dealing with fast bowlers: they clone them, they burn them out, they turn them into machines and they ruin them. But the performances of the trio of Lions seamers that collected six wickets on the opening day in Dambulla suggest such opinions may need to be reconsidered.
On the flattest pitch of the tour, with England Lions picking three spinners, Graham Onions, Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett produced a display of unwavering discipline. Onions and Woakes sent down 29 overs for only 48 runs between them and Plunkett conceded fewer than 2.5 an over. After 14 overs of the opening hour, Sri Lanka A were 19 for 1 and had only made 66 in the 32 overs by lunch.
It strangled the hosts to the extent that when they felt they could gain relief against the spinners they made mistakes. The Lions spinners proved expensive but Sri Lanka A sold them cheap dismissals and surrendered what had the potential for a first day of domination.
For 20 minutes in the second hour after lunch, England lost control for the first time in the series. A burst of boundaries put Sri Lanka A in a strong position, one they would have anticipated in such favourable batting conditions having won the toss. Then Bhanuka Rajapaksa looked a gift horse in the mouth. After Simon Kerrigan was hit for six over long-on, Graham Onions was stationed back on the boundary. A second attempt at clearing the rope went 20 yards shorter and Onions gleefully claimed the catch.
It was the second instance of naive batting. Onions bowled a bumper, which Dimuth Karunaratne hooked comfortably for four, after which a scout went back at deep-square leg. The very next ball, a second bumper was top-edged to Scott Borthwick at long leg. Mindless.
Rajapaksa, 22 years old and with only 26 first-class matches to his name, could be somewhat forgiven getting drunk on the freedom to accumulate runs after his strangulation for 0 and 20 in Pallekele. But Karunaratne is one of Sri Lanka's Test openers, fresh from the tour of Bangladesh. He was Onions' second wicket, following what is becoming a customary early scalp, this time not until the second over and what looked like the only wicket of the morning before Borthwick took a return catch on the stroke of lunch, Madawa Warnapura tapping a full toss back to him.
Without that second dismissal, the turgid morning would have been a sound result for Sri Lanka A after their top-order capitulations in Pallekele. But when little progress is made, cheap wickets are a bigger blow.
Rajapaksa had found good rhythm. Consecutive cover drives off Plunkett, his sixth and seventh fours - the first the best piece of timing of the day to a ball only slightly fuller than a good length - brought him fifty in 53 balls, which included consecutive sixes off Borthwick, who also dismissed Chaturanga de Silva to a delivery that turned and bounced just enough to produce a bat-pad chance to Jonny Bairstow.
The freebie from Rajapaksa gave Plunkett the chance to bowl at a fresh batsman. He steamed in with a ball more than 50 overs old and produced a fiery spell.
First picked for international cricket as 20-year-old, Plunkett was back on the outside two years later after nine mediocre Tests. England didn't want him and then he left his home county, Durham, after 12 years and back-to-back County Championships. A talent picked too soon by England was sliding away.
A new beginning was sought and the slightly thicker air of Yorkshire allowed Plunkett the chance to earn his way back. An incredibly hard-worker, he won the right to be picked regularly by his new county and on the England Lions tour of Sri Lanka he is now emerging as a potential international bowler once again.
Fitter, stronger and quicker, Plunkett now delivers spells of above 85mph, hitting the pitch hard and generating bounce. He was sharp in the opening match of this series and found the crucial breakthrough on day four. Here he assumed the enforcer role in the absence of Tymal Mills - left out for Kerrigan - and worked Niroshan Dickwella over with the short ball before getting a delivery to bounce a touch and take the edge through to Bairstow.
Plunkett and Woakes have looked candidates for Test selection so far on this tour, with Woakes' batting giving him an edge. Kevin Shine, the ECB's lead bowling coach, also suggested that Woakes' bowling has improved in the short time since his Test debut last September. Here he had Roshen Silva caught behind for 73 to the second new ball to reward his fine day and cap England Lions's excellent opening to this second rubber.
Alex Winter is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo