Alastair Cook has, it is fair to say, has been feeling the pressure recently. Criticism of his captaincy, most recently from Shane Warne, has brought out the prickles, with the skipper suggesting before this Test to the BBC that “something needs to be done”. At the same time, of course, he is battling a rough trot with the bat which now extends to 23 Test innings without a century. What, if anything, needs to be done in terms of his captaincy can wait for another time, but the issue of what needs to be done about his batting came to the fore during the second day’s play. From some quarters, it is suggested that he has a technical flaw outside off stump. There is a risk, however, of such criticism veering into fallacy. Too often this line of attack becomes a stick with which to beat a batsman for whom a run of low scores has started to blur the distinction between a loss of form and terminal decline. Simply speaking, a ball pitching on a good length on or just outside the off stump is, as Winnie-the-Pooh might have it, A Good Ball. Cook received A Good Ball from Dhammika Prasad. When he is on top form – and there is nothing to this observer which suggests that he will not soon return to those levels – he judges his off stump line expertly, he leaves anything just outside, and if the bowler strays much wider, his butcher’s cut descends to carve the ball to the boundary. By all means, let him face technical inquests when he starts regularly flipping half-trackers to midwicket. Let us not, however, allow the oldest form of dismissal in the paceman’s book to become the main evidence for the prosecution.
With the upheaval that this England team has faced since the series which shall not be named, and with a recent history of early innings wobbles, Cook’s dismissal could easily have been the sign for this Test match, which after the first day’s play had looked like England’s for the taking, to turn into what Ashley Giles once described as “a bit of an arse-nipper”. Of course, if Sri Lanka can clean up England’s lower order (with Chris Jordan at the crease, and Stuart Broad and Liam Plunkett still to come, one is loth to call it a tail) tomorrow, it may yet do so. If not, however, much of the credit will need to go to two of the new boys, Gary Ballance and Sam Robson. Ballance had already inked his name onto the teamsheet, at least for the rest of the summer, with his hundred at Lord’s, and he followed that up with another controlled innings here before edging Angelo Mathews behind. Robson, on the other hand, had already seen the vultures start to circle after a nervy display at headquarters. All the more credit to him, then, for an innings in which he put those twitches behind him, with a particularly impressive period as tea, and three figures, approached. He was watchful rather than becalmed as the interval came with him on 98, and when a push through the covers shortly afterwards brought him two and the landmark, his celebrations (unlike those of his parents in the crowd) were remarkably measured. This was not a man who was satisfied with 100, and it was a surprise when, on 127, he played round what was in truth an excellent ball from Nuwan Pradeep which seamed back to catch the top of his off stump. It is of course early days, and he will face tougher attacks at this level, but for the time being, he can be satisfied that he has done what was needed.
Angelo Mathews is a rare beast on the Test scene. Never mind that he has a batting average of over 80 when captain, as against an overall average of 46, when the cares of the job have dragged down so many before. No, he is that most unusual of characters, a captain who is also something of a front line bowler. It was he who found some variable bounce with the new ball to discomfit Ian Bell, who had exuded the class which seemed to make a hundred in his hundredth Test a quiet inevitability, shortly before the latter edged Shaminda Eranga to Dinesh Chandimal. Indeed, for a man with an entirely respectable bowling average of 35 (and who has, for that matter, taken 6-20) in one day internationals, it was a surprise to find that the two good deliveries which first Ballance and then Joe Root nicked to Chandimal represented only the second occasion on which he had taken more than one wicket in a Test innings. It is something of a mystery why he only allowed himself ten overs over the day’s play. It is a wider mystery why more bowlers do not take the captaincy reins.
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