There are some positives to take from today. Most notably, two players who were out of form recently had a very good day. Ian Bell showed why he is still one of our best batsmen and was actually the only one to look at all like he knew what he was doing. I was quite glad to see this (tempered by the horror of what was going on around him, of course) as I have said before that Bell is a good player who should be backed to score runs and he did just that. He was finally undone only by a very good ball from Herath (the only one he bowled). Still, it was a steady innings and in addition to his own runs (of which he scored more today than in all three Tests in the UAE) he gave Broad and Swann a chance to get some much needed runs at the other end with more expansive shots.
The other somewhat out of form player was Graeme Swann. There were some questions asked about his place in the side coming into the match and even more after Panesar finished the first innings with better figures. I will add, I think these questions were foolish: Panesar was in better form, but Swann is still the better bowler and he showed that clearly today. Broad gave him the chance to bowl at two left handers (as Swann likes to do) when he clean bowled Dilshan and Swann took the opportunity well. He not only got Thirimanne with a lovely ball, but he also got the vital wickets of Jayawardene and Sangakkara. Those were the batsmen most likely to defy England enough to get Sri Lanka to an unbeatable position. Sri Lanka may still do that, of course, but it won’t be any of the obvious candidates to see them there and it vastly improves England’s chances of making an interesting finish to this match. Swann also got Samaraweera stumped late in the day. Samaraweera is not as renown as his middle order colleagues, but he still averages better than fifty and to get him before stumps for only 36 (half of Sri Lanka’s runs at that point) was a huge boost. Swann ended the day with four top/middle order wickets for 28 runs I have suddenly stopped hearing anything about Monty being the new number one spinner.
Those were the high points of the day, but mostly it was one to forget. Sri Lanka edged their way (literally) to 318 all out with Jimmy getting a well deserved five-fer but it was far more than we should have conceded. After which came the great batting collapse of the style I thought we had left in the UAE. This time it was even less excusable. There is really nothing in the pitch, it’s only the second day, and Herath is not a special bowler. Bell aside, England played him like he was Shane Warne, however. Although there was some nice attacking intent, the batsmen seemed to not know how much turn he was getting (very little) and resorted to pre-meditated shots. These worked about as well as they did in the UAE. Bell showed how to play the spinners: he moved his feet and happily hit Herath back down the ground, or stayed back and cut behind square. He was the only one. After a decent start, Strauss and Trott spectacularly threw their wickets away: Strauss sweeping (*facepalm*) and Trott being stumped off a full toss in a manner which no text description can fully do justice. Prior and Patel, meantime, just went with the standard failure to get forward and were out lbw. Only Cook (to the seamer) and Bell (much later) were out to properly good deliveries. After the innings was all but over, Broad (28), Swann (24) and even Jimmy (23*) and Monty (13) hit the ball around brilliantly to give the scorecard some respectability. The fact that Monty hit a four back over the bowler’s head and Jimmy reverse swept a ball for four shows just how good the wicket was and just how poorly the top order played, however.
Today was the UAE all over again and England really have no excuse. The bowlers have single-handedly kept us in the match again, but we are going to need runs from our top order. We have a skilled lineup and the pitch should still be flat for the chase (it’s unlikely to occur on day four, let alone five), so if the batsmen come to the party we can chase 350. One would have to say, however, that Sri Lanka’s lead of 200 is probably already enough.