It was England’s lower order batters who actually won the five-match Test series 3-1 for them against India prior to the current series and it was no difference yesterday.
Their numbers 6, 7, 8 and 9 contributed 203 runs towards the total with debutant Ben Foakes playing the lead role with an undefeated 87 off 184 balls inclusive of six fours. It was a well disciplined risk-free knock that saw him stitch together three half century partnerships with Jos Buttler (38), Sam Curran (48) and Adil Rashid (35).
Foakes in fact was not even in the radar to make it to the final eleven until Monday when he was preferred to Jos Buttler. Buttler was the one spoken of highly to take over the gloves after regular wicket-keeper Jonny Bairstow was ruled out of the series with a twisted ankle playing a game of football.
However it turned out to be a good choice by England for Foakes made full use of his opportunity to make his mark at the highest level.
A combination of poor shot selection and tight bowling by Sri Lanka saw England’s batting flounder after they had won the toss and chose to bat first. Both captains said that they would prefer to bat first not wanting to take a chance batting last on the Galle pitch. But the ball hardly did anything alarming and the surface turned out to be a slow turner.
Rain was predicted for the day but surprisingly kept away to allow a full day’s play although the sun hardly shone. With overcast skies and the English supporters outnumbering the locals the ground resembled more of an English Test venue rather than a Sri Lankan.
Apart from England’s late order recovery that was led by Foakes the highlight of the day was veteran spinner Rangana Herath claiming his 100th Test wicket at Galle and off-spinner Dilruwan Perera capturing four of the eight wickets to fall for the day.
Herath who is retiring from international cricket at the end of the Test was given a guard of honour by schoolboys when he took the field. He didn’t have to wait too long to capture his 100th Test wicket at this venue.
In his third over England captain Joe Root danced down the track to him and yorked himself for 35 to provide him with that rare milestone. Muthiah Muralitharan is the only other bowler to take 100 Test wickets or more at Galle.
People may criticise Root for his recklessness when things were going well for England but on the other hand if not for his positive intent where he helped Keaton Jennings add 62 off 81 balls following the loss of two early wickets England would have been in deep trouble. Suranga Lakmal apparently getting the nod following Lahiru Kumara’s ouster from the Test squad on disciplinary grounds gave Sri Lanka the breakthrough as early as the third over by sending back debutant Rory Burns (9) caught down the leg side and Moeen Ali for a golden duck with his off stump sent cartwheeling to have them two down for 10.
Following the Jennings-Root partnership that took the score to 72, Herath provided the important breakthrough with Root’s wicket after which Dilruwan Perera took centre stage to send back Jennings for 46 scored off 53 balls (7 fours) and Ben Stokes for 7.
Buttler joined by Foakes put together an important stand of 61 for the sixth wicket before Perera picked up his third wicket of the innings by having Buttler caught behind for 38.
England’s lower order continued to prosper as Sam Curran – one of the heroes of England’s series win over India, continued to frustrate the Lankan bowlers. With Foakes who was holding up one end solidly with a maiden fifty off 111 balls, Curran added a valuable 88 runs for the seventh wicket.
Curran became the second England batsman to miss out on a fifty when he edged a delivery from Akila Dananjaya to Chandimal at slip with his score on 48. He thumped three sixes and a four in his 104-ball knock.
Dananjaya was Sri Lanka’s most expensive bowler conceding 78 runs off 18 overs before picking up his first wicket.
Shortly before the close Perera took his fourth wicket of the innings when Adil Rashid’s belligerent innings of 35 off 38 balls (2 sixes, 4 fours) was ended when he edged a catch to Chandimal at slip.
Foakes and Jack Leach (14 n.o.) saw England to the close without any further loss.
Sri Lanka will rue two missed opportunities the most vital of them being Kusal Mendis dropping Foakes at 60 at short leg off Perera. The other chance put down was by Angelo Mathews at slip when Jennings edged one off Dananjaya with his score on 26.
CHANDIMAL GROIN STRAIN
A worry for Sri Lanka was the frequent visits to the dressing room by skipper Chandimal who pulled a groin muscle while fielding and went off the field in the afternoon session. He returned after the tea break only to return once again after catching out Curran.
An SLC media release states: Skipper Dinesh Chandimal suffered a groin strain during the first day of the ongoing first test match played between Sri Lanka and England at the Galle Cricket Stadium. He is currently under observation and is not yet ruled out of the game.”
England capped Surrey players Burns and Foakes who had played with former Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara during his three-year stint with the county. Sri Lanka recalled opener Kaushal Silva for his first Test in 13 months. Both sides included three spinners.