England v Sri Lanka, The Second Test…
This England team could test the nation’s capacity for unconditional love unless they win this Test. With their functional batting and a bowling attack that has blown hot and cold, their progress into the hearts of the nation is likely to be a painfully slow one without the glory of victory to sweeten the process.
They are still favourites to beat Sri Lanka here and win the series but they have made heavy weather of it since Saturday afternoon, when they appeared in complete control at 311 for three. Since then they have been found wanting and but for Moeen Ali’s two late wickets on Sunday, their position would have been less promising than it is.
Even so, Moeen’s success first against Kumar Sangakkara, whom he trapped lbw, then Lahiru Thirimanne, who suffered a pair and made a total of four runs in the series when he was bowled, suggests even a modest run chase may not be straightforward on this bone-dry pitch.
Rangana Herath has yet to take a wicket here, but he is a better, more experienced bowler than Moeen and will exploit any turn or indecision on the part of England’s batsmen like a Spanish inquisitor.
History will tell you that England are the only side to win at Headingley after conceding a first-innings deficit of more than 40 runs, and those two occasions, against Australia in 1981 and 2001, have gone down in folklore. Sri Lanka’s shortfall here was 108 runs but half-centuries from Mahela Jayawardene and Sangakkara, their two senior players, has given them the basis of a sniff if they extend their lead of 106 to more than 170.
Teams who are rebuilding often find progress faltering but England, beginning with their batting and the loss of their last seven wickets for 54 runs, have been careless. The bowlers performed with a carefree nonchalance that suggested the lead was twice as large as 108, banging the ball in too short for this surface. Given the circumstances, the new-ball spells from James Anderson and Stuart Broad were one of their worst.
Headingley can defy the expectations even of those who claim to know it well. Until the millennium, it was a ground England banked on for a strong home advantage, but then India and South Africa began winning here. Idiosyncrasies such as “sun in brings swing, sun out brings nowt” have tended to come and go. What tends to triumph is seam up on a full length, though even that rule has been challenged by Graeme Swann’s 10 wickets here last year and again by Moeen’s late strike on Sunday.
Moeen is the team’s spinner at present and better then the assessment of some that he is a batsman who bowls spin. Sangakkara had stilled the varying threat posed by the pace bowlers to reach his seventh fifty in successive Tests, which equals the world record. Moeen’s introduction forced him to make different movements, one of them too slow to get his pad outside the line of the stumps to a ball that slid on with the arm.
Thirimanne got something completely different, an off-break that turned sharply from middle stump to hit middle and off.
It was just as well Moeen interjected when he did, his introduction seemingly a last resort from Cook after his pace bowlers had let him down. Anderson and Broad have 163 Tests of experience between them but the overs they have sent down in that time look as if they are beginning to tell on them if their lack of mobility in the field is anything to go by.
Anderson has never taken well to Headingley and he was true to that again on Sunday, though he did have Dimuth Karunaratne dropped by Chris Jordan at second slip when he was four. Broad, who took a hat-trick on Friday, fared little better, slowing to 79mph in his later spells. It might have been a deliberate ploy after he had seen Angelo Mathews take four for 44 with his medium-pacers, but adjustment is only commendable if you can do it without compromise and his lack of venom, save for a brief period where he got some reverse-swing, suggested he could not.
Perhaps the pitch has changed in character entirely, though it must have done so after the end of England’s innings in the morning which ended in a spasm of uncertainty but for a Matt Prior cameo.
Prior, who was excellent at Lord’s, was shoddy behind the stumps on Sunday, a reprise of his poor keeping in the first innings. It could be that back-to-back Tests are compromising the Achilles tendon problem he has to manage until he retires. If it is that, the India series, with five Tests in 42 days, is likely to provide him with an even greater challenge.