|Second Test, Pallekele (day one)|
|England 285: Curran 64, Buttler 63, Dilruwan 4-61, Pushpakumara 3-89|
|Sri Lanka 26-1: Leach 1-7|
|England lead by 259 runs|
Jos Buttler and Sam Curran led England out of trouble and into a promising position on day one of the second Test against Sri Lanka in Pallekele.
The tourists fell to 89-4 on a pitch showing prodigious turn before Buttler struck a superb 63 off 67 balls.
On 171-7 they still faced being bowled out cheaply, only for Curran to hit six sixes in a stunning onslaught, his 64 helping England reach 285 all out.
Jack Leach bowled Kaushal Silva for six as Sri Lanka reached 26-1 at the close.
The hosts trail by 259 runs and face a tough battle to reach England’s score, with the tourists’ spinners causing problems straight away.
Although their top order failed once again, England’s lower order have pushed their side a step closer to a first away series win under captain Joe Root, having won the first match of the three-Test series last week.
Buttler and Curran bail out England
Buttler is perhaps the England batsman most capable of executing a positive approach in challenging conditions, and he showed why in a tremendous counter-attacking knock.
Despite his side reeling at 65-3 and 89-4, Buttler exclusively swept and reverse-swept the spinners, knocking them off their lines and lengths.
Playing ostensibly risky shots with consummate ease, Buttler raced to fifty off as many balls, hitting seven fours, before finally falling to his most productive shot as he top-edged a reserve sweep to backward point off Malinda Pushpakumara.
Curran maybe runs Buttler close as England’s best counter-attacker though. Having scored 63 and 78 to shift the first and fourth Tests against India in England’s favour this summer, the 20-year-old made another vital half-century in trying circumstances.
His change of pace was ferocious – having largely defended in a stand of 45 with Adil Rashid, Curran was 16 off 65 balls when James Anderson arrived at the crease at 225-9, before the Surrey all-rounder scored 48 off his next 54 deliveries as they put on 60 for the last wicket.
He blasted six sixes before hitting his sole four and now has 14 sixes in his seven Tests – more than any other batsman in 2018 and more than Alastair Cook made in his entire career.
He had some luck – he was dropped on seven and 53, while Anderson successfully overturned a decision on review after being given out lbw first ball – but by the time he picked out long-off for the final wicket, Curran’s innings had ensured the beleaguered hosts were visibly deflated as they left the field.
Familiar flaws on a tricky pitch
Just as in Galle, England won the toss, batted with a positive approach and were in trouble early on, albeit more down to testing bowling than particularly reckless shots this time.
The flaws were all too familiar though – opener Keaton Jennings showing why doubts over his long-term place remain just one innings on from his unbeaten 146 as he again struggled against pace, prodding uncertainly at Suranga Lakmal to be caught behind for one.
It is too early to judge Ben Stokes’ long-term candidacy as England’s number three – he applied himself well before before he was squared up by Dilruwan Perera to fall lbw for 19, the ball straightening sharply and hitting the back leg, with Sri Lanka successfully overturning the initial not out decision on review.
Joe Root was busy from the off but tried to defend an innocuous delivery from Pushpakumara with a large gap between bat and pad, the ball flicking both on its way to hit the stumps.
There were positives – Rory Burns hit 43, his highest score in his three Test innings to date, before nicking a fine, biting delivery by Akila Dananjaya to first slip.
Ben Foakes also looked assured following his century on debut although should have reviewed when given out for an apparent bottom edge that flicked off his and counterpart Niroshan Dickwella’s pads before ending up at first slip, with replays suggesting the wicketkeeper had not hit it.
But despite moving down from three to six, Moeen Ali’s form with the bat remains a concern, the all-rounder playing across the line and out lbw on review for 10.
Buttler and Curran – together with Rashid’s enterprising 31 – took England to a decent total but better sides will not let them recover from such perilous positions.
Poor tactics let down Sri Lanka
That Sri Lanka let England off the hook was a result of some poor tactics in the field.
Their plans were too easily scrambled by Buttler’s approach, with stand-in captain Lakmal leaving huge gaps square of the wicket for the England batsman to target and seemingly waiting for the miscue that took 63 runs to arrive.
Curran and Anderson batted together for 66 balls but the tailender faced only 12 of those deliveries, with Curran routinely able to tap an easy single off the last ball of the over and keep the strike.
Those mistakes let down an otherwise admirable bowling display by Sri Lanka’s spinners.
Off-spinner Dilruwan constantly threatened England’s left-handers from round the wicket and returned to trap Rashid plumb lbw before dismissing Curran, while slow left-armer Pushpakumara picked up three vital middle-order wickets.
Akila, who is to undergo testing after being reported for a suspect bowling in the first Test, shrugged off that added scrutiny to bowl well, including a ripping delivery to bowl Leach.
‘It’s going to be a three-day Test’ – analysis and reaction
Former England captain Michael Vaughan on the TMS podcast: “It’s been a riveting day. It looks like we’re in for a three-day Test.
“I can’t see how the pitch will get any better. If Sri Lanka can get close to England, it makes the third innings tricky.
“I think there’s one low score in this match and if it’s Sri Lanka’s first innings, it’s game over.”
England all-rounder Sam Curran on the TMS podcast: “I was struggling for a bit of rhythm when I first got in but Adil Rashid got some crucial runs and then I just tried to take over from him.
“There is a ball on that wicket that is going to take your edge or hit your pads so it’s hard to start on but once you’re in you’ve got to try and cash in.”
Ex-England bowler Ryan Sidebottom on The Cricket Social: “Seeing the way Leach was causing problems at the end, I can’t see Sri Lanka getting more than 150.”