November 24, 2018
Just before tea the inescapable conclusion was that England were experiencing their worst day of the tour; they had been profligate with the bat and unusually clumsy in the field with their captain Joe Root spilling two slip catches off a perspiring Stuart Broad.
But by the close this qualified as their best day. They contrived a U-turn of a dimension beyond any of our leaders back home. Good sides seize their chances and here England contrived a staggering collapse. From 173-1 Sri Lanka subsided to 240 all out, which means that they lost their last nine wickets for 67 runs when once they seemed destined for a sizeable first innings lead. In part the home side contributed to their own downfall but there was something awesome in the way that Joe Root and his team ruthlessly upturned the match when the door was ajar.
The architects of the collapse were not necessarily the usual suspects.
Adil Rashid, who had only been required to bowl one of the first 42 overs in the innings, snatched career-best figures of 5-49 as well as pulling off a startling run-out. Ben Stokes, who had not bowled a ball until the 45th over, then intervened in a telling ten over spell, interrupted by tea, during which he peppered hapless batsmen with short deliveries. When in the mood Stokes ignores the thermometer though he had to spend a lot of time wiping his sweat-drenched hands before bowling his next delivery. All three of his dismissals rolled off the tongue nicely since all of his victims were caught by Ben Foakes, who had made light of taking a blow on the fingers of his left hand.
Both these bowlers may mischievously ask their captain why it took him so long to introduce them. There was one other notable contributor, Keaton Jennings, who would never question the wisdom of his captain. He had another inspired day at short leg. He held four catches, which equals the record by an outfielder for England in the same innings of a Test match, and three of them were outstanding. The best was probably a one-handed take from the bat of a startled Roshen Silva but the one which sent Dhananjaya de Silva on his way was not so bad either. This dismissal was the first domino to fall in what became the ugliest of processions for the home side.
Rashid found significant turn from the start though it took him a while to find the appropriate length. By contrast the conditions were not encouraging for a pace bowler but Stokes was never going to let that deter him. Until their interventions England had seemed listless and ill-disciplined by the standards they have set on this tour.
In the morning their remaining batsmen slipped from carefree mode, which is just about acceptable in the modern era, into carelessness. Moeen Ali, having just caressed a couple of boundaries in Goweresque style, then holed out to long-off against Dilruwan Perera. It is still not obvious where he was trying to hit the ball. There was a long off and a long on stationed on the boundary as Moeen drove lazily to one of them, Angelo Mathews, who had to move nine inches to accept the catch. England’s calculated aggression has been a source of wonder in this series but there was no calculation in this shot from the most enchanting of cricketers, who occasionally is their most exasperating as well.
Broad has not visited the middle recently and he was not inclined to spend much time in reconnaissance. He swept at his second ball from Lakshan Sandakan, which duly hit middle stump after negotiating a way around his legs. Then Jack Leach, attempting his Trescothick impersonations, could not quite clear Mathews running back at mid-off. England have a capable tail but the output of paltry 24 runs had deprived them of an imposing score.