England 3 wickets away from Test series victory in Sri Lanka


Two late wickets for England kept their noses in front on another dramatic day of the second Test against Sri Lanka in Kandy, that included two remarkable pieces of fielding from Keaton Jennings.

Earlier, Ben Foakes hit 65 not out when he and James Anderson added 22 runs in the morning session for the final wicket as England set the hosts 301 to win.

Sri Lanka opener Dimuth Karunaratne scored 57 and Angelo Mathews a brilliant 88 as home side’s run chase threatened to spoil the Barmy Army’s party, but after Moeen Ali and Jack Leach’s late strikes, the hosts still require another 75 runs on the final morning to level the series, with only three wickets left.

After Day 3 was curtailed by a heavy thunderstorm in Kandy, hot and hazy weather welcomed the teams on the fourth morning, but the threat of rain later in the day loomed large over this picturesque ground in Sri Lanka’s Central Province.

England’s last wicket pairing of Foakes and Anderson played some lovely shots early on, including a six to take the visitors’ lead to 300, before Anderson was bowled with the first ball juts after the new ball was taken.

The tourists were 346 all out, with Foakes finishing with another very impressive 65 not out. England’s new wicketkeeper now has 228 runs from his first four Test innings, with three dismissals.

The target was 301 for Sri Lanka, which frankly, seemed unlikely. However, they would have taken heart from Pakistan’s sensational victory here in 2015 when Younis Khan’s unbeaten 171 inspired his team to chase 382-3, the second highest chase in Asia of all time.

Sri Lanka’s innings got off to the worst possible start, when left-arm spinner Leach struck three times early on.

First, Kaushal Silva skipped down the wicket to a delivery that spun sharply past the outside edge to give Foakes an easy stumping.

Jennings then produced a moment of brilliance at short leg, when, wrong footed, he plucked the ball out of the air with his left hand when Dhananjaya de Silva clipped one into the leg side.

A truly memorable catch, Jennings, at 6 ft 4 ins, is not a classic frame for a short leg, but has worked hard with Paul Collingwood on this trip to stay low when fielding to his spinners, and it appears to be paying dividends.

Kusal Mendis joined Karunaratne to try to give some stability, but himself only lasted seven deliveries before missing with a sweep shot and being trapped plumb in front for only one.

Umpire Ravi initially turned down the huge English appeal, but unlike on Friday, the tourists used the review system to good effect and Mendis was on his way, to huge cheers from the Barmy Army, who had gathered round the one big screen on the grassy bank on the west side of the ground.

This type of scenario is bread and butter for Leach. Members at Taunton will be well aware of his ability to finish off teams on the final day on a turning wicket, but to see him do it in England colours must be satisfying for those who have backed him as the leading spin bowler in the country.

All three of Leach’s morning wickets were right-handers, taking his test total to thirteen, and the grand total of zero lefties.

If he is to progress and be England’s spin leader in the future, he must threaten all batsmen, not just those to which he can dip the ball in and spin away as he can do to the right-handers.

Mathews was finally able to give Karunaratne some solidity at the other end, and the pair settled the home fans nerves with calm stroke making that diffused the threat of both Leach and Moeen, on to replace James Anderson at the media centre end.

By lunch, Sri Lanka had moved on nicely to 93-3, with Karunaratne on passing fifty just before the break, and Mathews looking untroubled on 28 not out.

Karunaratne did survive an LBW scare on the stroke of lunch when Adil Rashid turned one into his pads, and although umpire Ravi gave the decision out, the DRS review showed the spin had done too much and was easily sliding down the leg side.

With the game still in the balance another huge moment in the field brought England first blood in the afternoon session.

Karunaratne swept off a good length from Rashid, and when Jennings stuck out his left hand to attempt another marvellous short range catch, he could only parry it.

Fortunately wicketkeeper Foakes was on hand to take and easy catch, and England had their fifth wicket, rather fortuitously.

Roshen Silva, the hero of day 2 when he scored a sublime 85 in Sri Lanka’s first innings, came to the crease with the score 103-4.

He and Mathews then began to build another assured partnership to add tension throughout the afternoon session; Mathews past fifty off 75 balls, and suddenly this incredible Test match was again in the balance.

As the afternoon wore on, England began to lose patience, wasting a review on a Rashid googly that was clearly going down leg, then unfortunately choosing against reviewing another appeal soon after, which they were to later find out from their dressing room, would have broken the partnership had they gone upstairs.

Although it was the Descision Review System that brought an end to the fifth wicket stand when Silva edged a regulation Moeen off-break onto his pad; when the ball looped into Root’s hands at slip, umpire Erasmus remained unmoved.

This time England were to be reprieved by the 3rd umpire, and Silva was on his way for 37. Sri Lanka were now 176-5, still needing 125 with five wickets remaining.

Rashid’s length seemed to abandon him before tea, dropping short to Mathews who by now was seeing the ball so well, he could dispatch long-hops in his sleep.

Niroshan Dickwella, the scrappy Sri Lanka wicketkeeper, is exactly the type of cricketer you would like to see walking in to join you at this stage of a run chase.

Busy and light on his feet, Dickwella raced to 20 off just 17 balls, jumping on anything short and the small home crowd began to find their voice as victory was in sight; Sri Lanka needed less than a hundred to win; England’s frustration was laid bare when Root threw down at the stumps, as much out of frustration as anything, missed by yards, and gave away four overthrows.

England up until this point had had a successful tour. Before tea here on the fourth afternoon, the cracks started to appear.

But how things can change with a break of play. On the third ball after the tea interval, Mathews missed one from Moeen, who was now bowling around the wicket, Marais Erasmus raised his finger, and after a review, the ball was clipping the top of leg stump and the ex-Sri Lanka skipper was on his way for a brilliant 88.

England thought they had Dilruwan Perera caught at leg slip off Moeen soon after, but again the 3rd umpire was brought into the game and decided the ball had not carried.

But Perera was definitely gone an over later when a fuller delivery from Leach struck him flush on the front toe, and yet again this extraordinary test match swung back in England’s favour.

Sri Lanka were still 75 runs short of their target, now just three wickets left. With the match on a knife edge, the rain came down in Kandy.

The players were immediately taken off, and the army off ground staff had the entire pitch and outfield covered within five minutes, so the pitch will remain largely unaffected.

It was an unfortunate end to another exceptional day of Test match cricket. Rarely in recent years has an England game been a photo finish throughout the game, but here in Kandy the large travelling supporters are being treated to one for the ages.

On Sunday Sri Lanka require 75 runs to win. Half an hour before the players were taken off, the home side were very much in the drivers seat.

Leach now has a career best 4-73 to his name, and will lead the attack on Sunday morning with England just three wickets away from a series victory.

By Joe MacDougall in Pallekele