England will need to overcome a trial by spin if they are to sustain their hopes of winning the ODI series against Sri Lanka after Kumar Sangakkara led the hosts to 239 with a measured innings of 91.
Currently 3-1 down in the seven-match series, England will have a modest-looking target to chase when the match resumes on the reserve day. With rain intervening just as the Sri Lanka innings ended, play was abandoned for the day and England were unable to begin their reply. Play resumes at 2.30pm local time on Thursday with England’s full allocation of 50 overs available to them.
But on a Pallekele surface that is expected to remain dry and continue to offer substantial assistance to spin bowlers and against a Sri Lanka attack boasting four spin options, England will have to defy their reputation as poor players of the turning ball if they are to prevail.
That Sri Lanka attack includes Sachitra Senanayake. The offspinner was reported for a suspect action during Sri Lanka’s tour of England and was suspended from bowling in July. But after remodelling his action and undergoing tests at the ICC-accredited facility in Chennai last month, the offspinner was cleared for a return by the ICC on Tuesday and, barely 24 hours later, came back into the Sri Lanka side in place of Rangana Herath, who has a hamstring injury.
England made two changes to their side. Alastair Cook, who was suspended from the fourth ODI due to England’s slow overrate in the third, returned to captain the side and replaces Alex Hales at the top of the order. England also recalled the spinner, James Tredwell, in place of the out-of-sorts allrounder Ben Stokes.
And it was Tredwell who proved the pick of England’s slow bowlers. After starting with a maiden in the 15th over – Angelo Mathews was the batsman – Tredwell followed with another during the batting Powerplay – Lahiru Thirimanne was the batsman on that occasion – and generally delivered a teasing spell, varying his pace cleverly and gaining enough turn to keep the batsmen under pressure.
But it was Chris Woakes who claimed the most eye-catching figures. Woakes finished with 6 for 47 – the best figures by an England bowler in ODIs against Sri Lanka – and took five wickets in his last 17 deliveries as Sri Lanka collapsed from 199 for 5 to 239 all out. It was the first time an England bowler has taken a five-wicket haul in an ODI in Sri Lanka.
That Sri Lanka set anything like a competitive total was largely due to the skill and experience of Sangakkara. While a more inexperienced player might have striven for a total in excess of 260, Sangakkara recognised that this was not a normal ODI surface and calmly compiled his fourth half-century in succession
While Sri Lanka again lost Kusal Perera early – he has now failed to reach double-figures in seven of his last 10 ODI innings and, in four of the last eight, he has been dismissed in the first over – they were nevertheless given a bright start by Tillakaratne Dilshan.
Dilshan pulled Chris Woakes’ first ball for four, then cut him for four more. Twice he drove Steven Finn through the covers to the boundary and, when Moeen Ali’s offspin was introduced into the attack in the eighth over, Dilshan slog-swept his second ball for four more.
But just as it seemed he was into his stride, Dilshan launched into a fierce drive in Chris Jordan’s first over only to inside edge the ball onto his stumps. Sri Lanka were 55 for two at the end of the mandatory Powerplay.
Mahela Jayawardene was Woakes’ first victim. Drawn into pushing at one outside off stump, he edged to a well-positioned wide slip position – a nice piece of captaincy from Cook – he managed just two and left Sri Lanka struggling on 59 for 3.
But Sangakkara added 85 with Mathews, accumulating the singles and picking off the short or full deliveries when the bowlers erred. Woakes was cut, Finn was clipped through midwicket and, after Tredwell over-compensated for dropping short, he was carted over the leg side.
But most of all Sangakkara adapted to the turning ball and showed an ability to milk Moeen, in particular. Seeming to enjoy Moeen’s extra pace, he picked up the singles with apparent ease and ensured that, even while Sri Lanka consolidated, the scoreboard was rarely still.
But after Mathews, caught off a top-edged pull, and Sangakkara were out, caught at deep midwicket, the Sri Lanka innings fell away. Jeevan Mendis was caught when an edge on to his helmet looped back to the bowler, Senanayake missed a slog, Thisara Perera heaved to deep midwicket and Ajantha Mendis was yorked to bowl Sri Lanka out with an over unused.
It took a late cameo from Perera, who bashed 27 from 17 balls, to take Sri Lanka above 225. But England may reflect that the 15 wides they donated might prove crucial in a low-scoring encounter.