England strike after Sam Curran spark lifts them to 285

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Sri Lanka 26 for 1 (Karunaratne 19, Pushpakumara 1*) trail England 285 (Curran 64, Buttler 63, Dilruwan 4-61) by 259 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

If there was any doubt how much assistance the surface in Pallekele would provide for spinners in this match – and there really wasn’t very much – it was banished within a few minutes of the start of the second Test.

The first and final balls of the second over of the innings, bowled by offspinner Dilruwan Perera, fizzed past the outside edge of Rory Burns’ bat. By the close, 10 of the 11 wickets to fall had been taken by spinners with few more dramatic than the last – Kaushal Silva being bowled by a beauty from Jack Leach that drew him forward, gripped and turned past the outside edge to clip the top of off stump. Not many are expecting to be here on Sunday.

There is another possibility. That is instead of the pitch crumbling – there is little if any precedent for that here – it will, instead, simply lose pace. If so, while run-scoring may prove difficult, the turn may become ever slower and, perhaps, less dangerous as the game wears on.

In such circumstances, Joe Root would have been delighted to win his seventh toss in succession in Test cricket. England’s theory – and they are probably right – is that batting (or at least run-scoring) on this unusually dry surface will become more difficult throughout the game.

That England were able to set something around a competitive total in such circumstances was largely due to half-centuries from Jos Buttler and Sam Curran. Both men owed their success to the use of calculated aggression, confidence in their own ability and abundant natural talent.

There was a time when batsmen would have reacted to the turning ball and pressure that Sri Lanka built with careful defence and hours of concentration. Not any more. Buttler’s first response was to attempt to sweep (either reverse, conventional or lap) almost every delivery he received – at one stage he swept five balls in an over and 51 of his 63 runs came from different variations of the stroke – while Curran thumped six sixes, all of them before he had hit a four, in a remarkable late-innings blitz. The modern game has lost some qualities it used to have – some rigour, some grit, some attrition – but it might never have offered more entertainment.

Both Buttler and Curran started their innings in fairly conventional fashion. But Buttler soon abandoned that after just recovering his ground to avoid being stumped before he had scored and instead reasoned that his best method of combating the turn was to sweep. Sometimes he swept through extra-over, sometimes he swept just past the keeper’s left hand and, at one stage, Akila Dananjaya was swept for three fours in succession.

While the shot eventually brought his downfall – he top-edged a reverse to backward point – his innings had helped revive England just as they appeared to be falling away. Burns, who batted nicely in making 43, was the only other man in the top seven to reach 20.

Curran’s contribution was every bit as impressive. England were 225 for 9 when James Anderson joined Curran but, so well did he strike the ball and farm the strike that the final pair added 60 in 11 overs in a stand that seemed to dishearten an increasingly ramshackle Sri Lanka.

Curran thrashed six sixes – he has now brought up all three of his Test fifties with a six, and has hit more sixes than anyone else in Test cricket this year – while Anderson contributed just seven runs in the partnership. Five of those sixes were off the unfortunate Dananjaya- twice he was driven over long-off, once over long-on, once he was pulled and once, impossibly, he was swatted over extra cover when the bowler delivered a wide one in an attempt to thwart him – while Perera was also lofted over mid-off to help England progress from an adequate total to, perhaps, a dangerous one.

Sri Lanka will rue a couple of missed opportunities, though. Curran was reprieved on both 1 – when Niroshan Dickwella whipped off the bails just before Curran overbalanced and fell out of his ground – and again on 7 when he edged the deserving Dananjaya through the left hand of a diving slip fielder.

He was dropped on 53, too. On that occasion Malinda Pushpakumara, who came into the side in place of the retiring Rangana Herath, was back on his heels on the long-on fence and subsequently put down a relatively straightforward chance driven straight into his midriff. It summed up the latter stages of an increasingly untidy performance in the field by a somewhat demoralised Sri Lanka side.

For all the talk of spin, it remains seam – or at least pace – that appears Keaton Jennings’ weakness. Here he fell jabbing at one he could have left from Suranga Lakmal; the only man to fall to seam bowling all day.

Burns was the most comfortable of England’s batsmen. Three times he swept Dilruwan to the boundary; on another occasion he cut him there. He also picked up an early boundary off his legs from the seam of Lakmal. It was some surprise when he was drawn forward and edged to slip by a fine delivery in Dananjaya’s first over.

While Burns might be forgiven for wondering how he could play such a delivery, Root might be forgiving for wondering how he missed the one that bowled him. Lunging forward to the left-arm spin of Pushpakumara, Root left a gate so large you could reverse park a caravan in it and simply missed a straight one. It was the third time in the series he has been dismissed by left-arm spinners. Shades of Kevin Pietersen, perhaps?

Ben Stokes started his first innings at No. 3 in typically positive style. He was down the pitch to his first delivery, bowled by Lakmal, and flicked his third through square leg for four. But while there was another flowing drive to the boundary off the seamer, life against spin proved harder. He survived a reviewed appeal for lbw on 10, on the basis of umpire’s call, but fell in almost identical fashion shortly afterwards, back when he should have been forward and struck on the back pad by one that turned and beat his outside edge.

England may yet regret a couple of somewhat soft dismissals, though. Moeen Ali simply missed a short ball he had tried to turn into the leg side, while had Ben Foakes called for a review, he would surely have won a reprieve after being adjudged to have edged to slip. Replays suggested the ball brushed both his front and back leg but at no stage touched his bat. In a low-scoring game, such moments could yet prove crucial.



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