In the build-up to this Test, playing in Sri Lanka has been described as one of the game's toughest challenges and England responded with an outstanding bowling performance on the opening day at Kandy. Matthew Hoggard took four wickets in 25 balls during the morning session as Sri Lanka hit the depths of 42 for 5, then Monty Panesar chipped in with three after a partial resurrection from Kumar Sangakkara and Prasanna Jayawardene who added 106 for the sixth wicket to lift them to 188.
The morning session was a dream for England as Hoggard, playing his first Test since June, swung the ball as though back on home soil at Headingley. Three of Sri Lanka's middle order were dispatched for single figures as Hoggard added Kandy to his list of overseas success stories, alongside diverse locations such as Nagpur, Adelaide and Johannesburg. However, home embarrassment was averted to some degree by Sangakkara and Jayawardene who mixed caution with aggression before the second collapse of the innings as the last four wickets fell for eight runs.
But England couldn't finish with their full card intact after facing 17 overs. Alastair Cook went third ball, planting his front foot across the line to Chaminda Vaas, using his 100 Tests worth of experience with the new ball as Hoggard did so successfully. Michael Vaughan could have gone, too, but Asad Rauf gave him the benefit of very little doubt against Lasith Malinga. There were three overs from Muttiah Muralitharan; that's a battle that will unfold on Sunday.
It was always expected that this ground would offer England their best chance in the series, the conditions being less fierce than Colombo and Galle while the pitch offers more for seam and swing merchants. But Vaughan would have had no hesitation in batting first and Mahela Jayawardene was smiling widely at the toss. However his grin disappeared as quickly as Sri Lanka's openers; Sanath Jayasuriya driving to backward point to increase speculation he will be forced to retire and Michael Vandort chipping limply to mid-on to open Hoggard's account.
The next three came in a rush with Matt Prior holding three outside edges. Jayawardene was undone straight after drinks, Chamara Silva was squared up by a beauty and Jehan Mubarak completed the trio with a lazy prod at his fifth ball. Hoggard was making the ball talk, adjusting faultlessly between left- and right-handers and England sensed a chance to run through a shocked batting line-up still suffering a hangover from Australia.
But after Hoggard's burst, it was much more how Test cricket is meant to be in Sri Lanka; batsmen settling in while the pitch is at its best for scoring and bowlers having to bust a gut. Sangakkara followed his efforts in the Hobart Test last month, where he scored 57 and 192, with another innings to show why he is ranked No. 3 in the world. He had two moments of concern, an edge off James Anderson which flew through a vacant third slip before lunch and a close lbw appeal against Panesar when he padded up to a ball which spat out of the footmarks. As Sangakkara escaped, Muralitharan may just have made a mental note in the dressing room.
Sangakkara's half century took 80 balls and he played Hoggard, who only bowled four overs in the afternoon after 10 in the morning, with more ease than any of his team-mates. Vaughan began to work harder with his field settings, putting men on the drive and sweepers on the fence to try and stifle the scoring. England benefited from youthfulness, maintaining their focus except for lapses apiece from Ryan Sidebottom and Hoggard which allowed boundaries to escape.
Jayawardene belied his recent form - a pair at Hobart - with a positive innings after taking 17 balls to open his account. He always gave the bowlers a chance, but there were a fair share of handsome boundaries. Panesar struggled to find his rhythm, but his confidence was given a timely boost when Jayawardene chipped straight to short leg, where Cook held on after a juggle, and he added two more either side of tea as he settled into his role.
Sangakkara deserved a century, but left with the tail he chanced his arm and skewed an outside edge towards backward point where Paul Collingwood leapt to his right to hand Anderson reward for an economical performance. The last wicket came in typically comical style as Malinga heaved the ball through midwicket and Muralitharan was nowhere near making the second as Ravi Bopara, handed his debut after edging out Owais Shah, acted swiftly in the outfield. But Muralitharan's main role is with the ball and, having seen the turn on offer for Panesar, he is the biggest threat to England's strong position.