England and Sri Lanka played out a thrilling draw in the first Test match of the cricket summer at Lords, as Euan Cunningham reports
12 months ago the Australian coach Darren Lehmann, ably assisted by his lieutenant inside the English media Shane Warne, were keen to suggest that the cricket from England in that summers Ashes had been dour and cynical. Whether they were correct or not, any lingering concerns can now be well and truly refuted after a memorable and pulsating Test match between England and Sri Lanka ended in a pulsating draw which was only decided with the very last ball.
England can reflect on impressive, mature performances from players who found the remorseless slog of the Ashes last winter a real struggle. Matt Prior returned to form with aplomb, hitting a sparky 86 in the first innings, while Ian Bell looks to be approaching something like his form from last summer, getting England out of trouble in that first innings with 56 classy runs. However, the biggest plusses come from two Yorkshire lads who came under fire in the recent one-day series; Joe Root and then Gary Ballance. Root made an epic 200 in the first innings and never once seemed troubled, while Ballance made a fine 104 in the 2nd innings, digging the hosts out of a hole dug primarily by themselves. Root has always been seen as a fine future player, but has not yet produced the consistency required from a Test match batsman. Lords is already a favourite ground of his with this immense double hundred following 180 against the Aussies last summer. England will hope that this score, right at the start of the summer, will give Root the confidence needed for a fruitful few months. Ballance is also under pressure which could be seen as his knock started off as an exercise in survival, at some points bringing to mind Geoff Boycott, before suddenly and fluidly transforming into Chris Gayle. His second fifty seemed to be all boundaries, seizing the moment and taking advantage of a Sri Lanka attack who were visibly flagging. These two young players, both developed by the proud white rose of Yorkshire, will be integral to English batting between now and the 2015 Ashes.
There were other good performances, notably debutant Chris Jordan (who took 5 wickets in the match and looked uncompromising with the bat), and the returning Liam Plunkett, back from Country Cricket after a 7 year stretch in exile from international cricket. However, there will be several areas to concern Peter Moores after his first Test ended in a draw only decided with the last ball. Alastair Cook once again registered two low scores, and has now gone 22 test innings without a century. This sort of bad run from an opener constantly leaves the team trying to battle back from a difficult start and puts extra pressure on the middle order. Sam Robson also looked uncomfortable opening, a surprise given that Lords is his home ground. Both could really do with a decent score at Headingley.
But any Test match that goes to the last ball with the result still undecided should simply be roundly celebrated as an advert for the format. Nuwan Pradeep, the Sri Lankan tailender who looks as if at any moment he might try to hold the bat the wrong way round, survived being dismissed off the penultimate ball of the game. Stuart Broad got the LBW decision from the umpire and immediately set off with the whole England team in celebration, believing they had won the match, only to be recalled as Pradeep correctly reviewed, having got a massive inside edge. Before this, England had done extremely well to take 9 wickets in a day and 6 in the evening session, turning what looked like a certain draw into a near-victory. Jimmy Anderson in particular bowled beautifully, taking 4 wickets on day 5 and 7 altogether in the match, a welcome performance after looking jaded in the winter.
A match therefore, much like the football on Saturday, that was immensely frustrating in the end but ultimately provided several huge positives. England showed the ability to bat deep and scored 500 for the first time since 2012, while their seamers continued their excellent form on home soil. The mauled and humiliated England of the winters Ashes have been replaced by a distinctly more adventurous and youthful side, and they’ll hope to take the positivity from this game onto the 2nd test and throughout the rest of the summer.