Home discomforts hurt Sri Lanka as England storm the fort

You know you are at a Sri Lanka match when you see the flags. You need not know whose flags they are. You could be colour blind. Your eyes could even be failing you in general. But if can see there is a flag for almost every person in at a cricket ground, it is likely to be Sri Lankans waving them. When the team plays overseas, for example, Sri Lanka fans are often vastly outnumbered, but on the brandishing of flags front, they have home supporters covered.

There is something amiss about this picture, of course. That is still a Buddhist stupa up on the hill, beyond the bay to the east. The gentle azaan from a nearby mosque still echoes through the grounds in the afternoons. The less-than-gentle honking of public buses as well.

At Galle on day one, though, English, British and Welsh flags outnumbered Sri Lankan ones. The ratio was 10 to one, conservatively. On day two, it was even more stark. In the ground, and on the fort ramparts, where the hordes, some of them shirtless, many turning the resplendent pink of the sunset sky, built beer snakes, flags that read "Newcastle" or "Hull" or "Stoke". There were more unusual names: "Scunthorpe", "Hungerford", "Dorking". In the innings break late in the day, one England fan disrobed and streaked clear across the ground, in a country that takes its public nudity laws seriously.

They may not have applied sufficient sunscreen. They may come from places that sound made up. One could be spending the next few days in a local jail. But for this week at least, they have hung out in numbers on the ramparts, and they have taken over the ground. As they watch on at Sri Lanka's favourite venue of all, their team has taken over the Test.


Sometimes, when teams are a month into an away series and defeats have piled up, morale subsides, ill-feeling rears its head, and personal grouses - magnified by the distance from home - begin to take hold.

Officially this is a home Test for Sri Lanka, but it is not without this kind of resentment. When Angelo Mathews reaches fifty, he looks toward the dressing room, points to his bat, and makes a yapping motion with his gloved hand. The message is obvious. "I am letting my bat do the talking." He has just made a chanceless half-century, helped raise his team from 40 for 4, and batted out 49 more deliveries than any of his team-mates. One look at the scoreboard, though, and anyone would deduce that his job remained half done. Maybe less than half.

It is true that Mathews was recently axed as limited-overs captain by his coach, and shunted out from those teams altogether. True that some resentment seems to linger. But Sri Lanka needed a further 207 to draw level with the opposition at the time, and with five wickets already down, Mathews was batting in the company of Niroshan Dickwella, whose highest Test score is 83. The men to come below can sometimes be handy with the bat, but almost certainly cannot be relied on to make substantial dents in that deficit.

It would have to be Mathews who stuck around. Mathews who told Dickwella to curb his aggression, Mathews who hand-held the tail, wringing each lower-order partnership for as many runs as it could possibly produce, as he had done during his best series, in 2014 and 2015.

Instead, the first ball after tea - the first ball he faced after gesturing to the dressing room - Moeen Ali pitches a regulation offbreak outside off stump. Mathews lunges, edges into his pad, and is caught at short leg. He's made 52. Six wickets down, Sri Lanka have still not got out of follow-on territory. This is the kind of plight that often befalls them away, but rarely at home, especially when facing non-Asian teams.

Against South Africa in July, they virtually had both Tests in the bag by the end of the second day.


That Dickwella even has to be told to tone down his adventurous strokeplay in Test cricket is telling enough. In limited-overs cricket he is a charging, sweeping, reverse-slapping dynamo - a man who attempts to 'Dickscoop' his way into a nation's hearts. In Tests, though, he his 23 matches into his career, and still hasn't mustered a hundred. In this Test, that failing seems especially relevant, given what his opposite number, Ben Foakes, has achieved.

Dickwella got a start in this innings. Mostly the ball found the middle of his bat. He rarely seemed in discomfort, nailing a sweep, ramping Ben Stokes over the wicketkeeper's head, and flicking a Jack Leach delivery deliciously over the leg side. Then, just as he seems to be settling in for a good innings, Moeen tosses up a slightly slower ball, and Dickwella drives at it early, chipping it at catching height to short cover.

It is the kind of dismissal frequently seen at Galle. A batsman has got through his first 20 balls. His feet are moving well, and he has begun to score freely. The bowler has tried keeping it tight, but is being milked for singles. So he changes his mode of attack and lets one hang in the air a little while, to lure the now-confident batsman into a soft dismissal. The only difference is that often, it is a Sri Lanka spinner who lays the bait and a visitor who takes it. Local batsmen, who have been playing spin since the womb, are usually not so easily duped.


In their worst Tests outside Asia, when the ball is swinging, and the wind is cold, Sri Lanka batsmen often get out attacking. Sometimes, they don't know what they are doing, are miserable in both a cricketing and physical sense, and the inclination is to try something - anything - which usually involves hitting out. Through the course of the day in Galle, various batsmen appeared uncomfortable on their own home track. Dhananjaya de Silva mishit several balls, and was bowled attempting a lap sweep in the half hour before lunch. Dilruwan Perera smacked a ball to cover having also made a start. Missing from the whole performance was the nous you expect from batsmen in their home conditions. Unseen was the desire to turn a half-century into a hundred, to turn a start into an innings of substance, to make the opposition sweat for their wicket.

England, who have done their homework, watched replays of that South Africa series, have two men who coached Sri Lanka leading their think tank, have three frontline spinners in the XI, acclimatised in the ODIs, played two practice matches, and have fans who have bought even the cheap tickets before the locals had a chance, are 177 runs ahead in the Test, with 10 wickets still in hand.

As Sri Lanka batted on day two, the flags on the rampart and the beer snakes around the ground almost looked at home.