Sri Lanka started a long year of Test cricket in second gear. After a three-month break they were ring-rusty and disappointing against one of the weakest West Indies teams for decades. The bowling, apart from Murali, who settled without fuss back into his normal metronomic grove after his 11-month absence from international cricket, lacked teeth and the fielding was sloppy on occasions. West Indies may have been shorn of their stars by a contract dispute that that has rumbled on for an inexcusably long time, but they showed a pluckiness on day one that will serve as an emphatic warning: Sri Lanka need to raise the tempo and click into top gear fast to avoid embarrassment.
Five minutes after lunch the game was running entirely to script: West Indies were folding on 113 for 5 and the hosts were looking forward to a shortened day on the field. But Denesh Ramdin, a 19-year-old wicketkeeper who claimed no butterflies on debut, swiftly repaired the damage with a spunky maiden fifty, an innings that contained the odd dollop of good fortune but, more importantly, a great deal of composure. His obvious enjoyment of such a special and potentially nerve-racking day in his career provided West Indies fans with good reason to cheer. A former Under-19 captain, he looked entirely at home and his 79-run stand with his captain, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a man that baulks at batting orthodoxy with his ridiculous square-on stance, was immensely valuable.
Chanderpaul crawled along in the afternoon but showed-off impeccable timing in the afternoon, cover-driving Murali beautifully with a mere flick of the wrist and indulging himself with one belligerent foray down the wicket to Rangana Herath's left-arm spin. Most importantly, though, his unbeaten 69 was an innings fashioned under tremendous pressure. He must have felt a crushing responsibility on his shoulders with his normal top-order colleagues absent but, not for the first time since inheriting the captaincy, he still carried about his business with great skill and cool efficiency. With stubborn support from Omari Banks, he added 79 more runs for the seventh wicket to leave West Indies right back in the game. A good morning tomorrow and his team could even be in the driving-seat.
But one senses that Sri Lanka can and will turn up the heat on day two. West Indies have made it clear that they cannot coast like they did on day one. Chaminda Vaas, feeling his way back from a side strain, was characteristically economical on the opening day but lacked venom, failing to find the dangerous late swing with the new ball that was expected under overcast skies or substantial reverse swing with the old ball. But, like Murali, he looked more at ease with each over he bowled and he will surely not waste the second new ball first thing in the morning. Lasith Malinga, too, was slightly out of kilter, spraying the ball around and overstepping frequently during his three short spells. But this is hardly surprising considering his lack of match bowling in recent weeks and the first day will have helped him regain some rhythm.
The two support bowlers, Rangana Herath and Gayan Wijekoon, also have much to prove. While Wijekoon, making his debut, conjured up a couple of wickets he did so fortuitously, winning a marginal leg-before decision against Sylvester Joseph in the morning when replays suggested the ball pitched outside leg, and then benefiting from an inside-edge to bowl Ramdin later in the day. The decision to play Wijekoon may have deepened Sri Lanka's batting order but it weakened the bowling and a frontline bowler like Nuwan Zoysa may have been a better option with Upul Chandana as the second spinner and No 7, although it is perhaps still too early on such a flat pitch to pass too stern a judgment on Herath who was handled with relative ease.
Sri Lanka will at least be delighted with the return of Murali. Some journalists were chuntering in the press box about an apparent lack of fizz on his return, but he came with a whisker of trapping Chanderpaul lbw with his doosra on a couple of occasions and beat the bat on a number of occasions despite the slow-paced pitch. On a luckier day he would have bagged a five-for and everyone would be singing his praises. The only concern is that, subconsciously at least, he is still clearly worried about his shoulder, rolling his arm over and feeling the joint regularly while grazing in the outfield.