England strengthen grip on second Test

With two whole days remaining, England have this second Test, and Sri Lanka, by the throat. Set 383 to make England bat again, they had reached 132 for the loss of two wickets by the close, still 251 behind but with two of their most accomplished, in-form batsmen at the crease in Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene. They have already shared a century partnership to erase the efforts of Graham Thorpe and Matthew Hoggard who compiled a tenth wicket partnership of 91 for England as Thorpe went to his eleventh Test century.

The morning had begun with Andrew Flintoff, in company with Thorpe, threatening mayhem. A large and noisily boisterous crowd were warming to the prospect of a thunderous Flintoff innings. He played what was perhaps the shot of the day, going down on one knee to square drive through the covers to bring up the fifty partnership with his sixth four in a personal tally of 26.

Three runs later, however, he was adjudged out by umpire Daryl Harper caught at short leg off Muttiah Muralitharan who thus picked up his fifth wicket. Flintoff appeared genuinely surprised at the decision, even if, commendably, he registered no sign of dissent. Seeing the television replay, his surprise was entirely understandable. Flintoff, and the crowd, were deprived of mouth-watering possibilities, while Muralitharan was happy to accept the bonus.

There were doubts about his fitness right up to the toss, and even on the second day when he was still having treatment to his injured shoulder. However, he bowled no fewer than 64 overs in the innings for his 34th five-wicket return in a Test innings. He threw everything into the mix and delayed the taking of the new ball until 151 overs had been bowled with the old one.

By that time, England had lost Alex Tudor, Ashley Giles and Andrew Caddick, all of whom sent outside edges off Nuwan Zoysa progressively wider into the slip cordon. A flying wicket-keeper, Kumar Sangakkara, took the last one to deprive Hashan Tillakeratne of his fifth catch, and he was at second slip at the time. Thorpe was on 61 as Hoggard made his way to the middle with his sailor's gait for what was presumed to be a brief appearance. It was anything but. Hoggard faced 94 of the 185 balls bowled at the pair and his contribution could not be measured simply in terms of the 17 runs he scored as he helped Thorpe through to his hundred and broke Sri Lankan hearts.

Thorpe played an outstanding innings. He worked the ball into gaps or stroked it through them, seldom looking in any trouble at all. Once he had passed three figures, he batted with an understandable freedom as the tourists were forced to toil despondently under the hot sun. He was only out when he uppercut a short ball from Charitha Buddika outside off stump to be caught on the third man boundary.

Thorpe's 123 was his highest score against Sri Lanka, as was England's total of 545. The tenth wicket partnership of 91 with Hoggard was the highest for England against Sri Lanka. There is nothing more frustrating than a partnership like this for the fielding side and, by the end of it, the tourists looked anything but a well-drilled unit.

When the Sri Lankan batsmen began their lengthy salvage effort, two points were quickly in evidence. One was that they would not be inhibited by the magnitude of their task from playing their natural strokes at the outset, while the pitch still offered steep bounce for the England bowlers, notably Andrew Caddick, even if the lateral movement seen in the first innings was absent.

Not that either was required to end captain Sanath Jayasuriya's innings. Hoggard produced a yorker that homed in on his leg stump. In his next over, Hoggard swung one into Kumar Sangakkara's pad to have him palpably lbw. With Caddick regularly getting the ball to climb past the outside edge, Sri Lanka faced a daunting prospect at tea, still 350 behind.

Caddick, however, could not summon up the same devil as in the first innings and, while he did not bowl at all badly, could not find the same penetration. The same could be said of the England attack as a whole. They toiled away for another breakthrough, but Atapattu was at his watchful, if not necessarily watchable, best while Jayawardene is perhaps the most technically adept batsman to make the most of an increasingly benign surface. Their unbroken century partnership will have done wonders for Sri Lankan resolve.