Angelo Mathews passes 50 as Sri Lanka edge into lead
Tea Sri Lanka 135 and 302 for 7 (Mathews 51*, Hasaranga 3*, Bess 3-81) lead England 421 by 16 runs
Despite starting their second innings with a deficit of 286 runs, Sri Lanka moved back into the lead shortly before tea on the fourth day. But, by the interval, Sri Lanka’s lead was just 16 and they had only three wickets in hand. England remain in the dominant position.
There are a couple of glimmers of hope for Sri Lanka. One comes with the expectation that rain could yet play a significant part in the remainder of this game – a few spots fell during the afternoon session, though there was no delay – and the other the possibility that even a modest target could prove demanding for England. It was noticeable, for example, that the stroke which saw Sri Lanka move into the lead was an under-edge from Mathews after a delivery from Jack Leach scuttled along the floor. Later in the over, a delivery pitching in a similar place leapt to shoulder height.
Batting fourth could yet prove desperately tough and the example of the victory against India here in 2015 – when Sri Lanka conceded a huge first innings lead but bowled out India for 112 in the fourth innings to win by 63 – may provide both hope and inspiration.
Most of all, there is Mathews. It took him 164 balls to reach his 50 but, in resisting for long, he has kept his side’s hopes alive in this match. And, as he showed at Leeds in 2014, he can still damage England in this situation.
But if Sri Lanka are to escape with a draw from this game, they will be especially grateful for the efforts of Thirimanne. His only other century at this level came on this ground in March 2013. But, since that match against Bangladesh, he had averaged 19.16 in 27 Tests coming into this game. Having failed in the first innings, it is no exaggeration to suggest that, by the time he walked out to bat on the third day, his career – and Sri Lanka’s hopes of salvaging anything from this game – were hanging by a thread.
But, showing both patience and composure, he demonstrated a decent defensive technique and put away the loose ball effectively in reaching his first century in 54 Test innings.
In the end, it was the new ball that did for Thirimanne. After Sam Curran had moved a couple away from him, he got one to hold its own and take the inside edge of Thirimanne’s bat. Jos Buttler, who is having a decent game as keeper, held on to a testing chance.
England’s two frontline spinners – Leach and Dom Bess – have so far shared five second-innings wickets. In truth, though, neither has been at their best with the number of balls beating the bat only going to show what might have been achieved with more consistency. For while there is significant assistance in this surface for spin bowlers, there have been too many loose balls to allow them to build pressure.
With England’s spinners proving a little unreliable, Root was instead persuaded to turn to his seamers to provide some control in the afternoon session. Stuart Broad responded with four maidens in a five-over spell, while Mark Wood conceded just six runs from his five overs. As a result, Niroshan Dickwella and Mathews took 23.4 overs to add 48 runs.
That frustration may well have led to Dickwell’s downfall. Attempting to run a short ball to third man, he succeeded only in top-edging the ball into the gloves of Buttler. In the next over, Dasun Shanaka was beaten in the flight by Leach and effectively yorked. Sri Lanka had battled hard but, with four sessions to go, the damage inflicted by their first innings debacle was still proving tough to overcome.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo