England vs Sri Lanka: Sam Curran, Jos Buttler and Rory Burns drag England to strong total in their own unique ways

England staggered and then swaggered their way to 285 on an intriguing first day of the second Test at Pallekele, fighting their way from an okay score on a difficult pitch to a very competitive total that the Sri Lankans should never have allowed them to reach. 

It was an innings punctuated by regular wickets but enlivened by three distinct individual performances; Rory Burns’ gritty 43, Jos Buttler’s sweep-heavy 63 and then Sam Curran’s wild, bombastic 64, most of which came with a straight bat in a phenomenal onslaught during the final partnership. 

England had won the toss and decided to bat early in the morning, but it wasn’t long before they were enduring another top-order collapse.

Keaton Jennings was the first of the day to come unstuck on a difficult surface, reprising his troubles against seam bowling to snick off against Sri Lanka’s only quick, Suranga Lakmal.

After playing so well at Galle for his unbeaten 146, Jennings reminded the world of what remains a baffling duality for an opening batsman – he averages 17.1 against seam and 70.8 against spin, per CricViz. 

Had he lasted much longer it wouldn’t necessarily have got easier, though. Sri Lanka skipper Suranga Lakmal revealed on Wednesday that he’d asked for a spin-friendly pitch and he certainly got one. 

Joe Root is traditionally one of England’s best players of a turning ball but has now been bowled by spinners twice in just 68 balls this series, allowing Malina Pushpakumara to sneak one between his bat and pad having previously only lost his poles to spin bowlers twice in 4041 balls. 

With all three of his dismissals in this series coming against slow left-armers, Root will no doubt go back to the nets, consult the video and try to iron out a kink in his technique before it becomes an outright flaw.

Before Root, Ben Stokes had come and gone. Batting in his new position of number three for only the fourth time in his first-class career, the Durham all-rounder played some beautiful scoring shots before Dilruwan Perera, the hosts’ most dangerous bowler, trapped him with a ragging off-break that was nigh-on unplayable. 

All the while, as these wickets fell, Rory Burns soldiered on at the other end. 

The Surrey opener had to be incredibly patient for his England call-up and his patience was key in how he played so well against the turning ball here, rocking back elegantly to find runs off the back foot in addition to the usual repertoire of sweeps and clips off his pads. 

Burns was stopped short of his half-century when Akila Dananjaya span one sideways to catch his outside edge, but this is the sort of 43 that is worth 100 on other grounds. 

With Burns’ dismissal, England went on the front foot. Jos Buttler arrived and played an aggressive innings to score at faster than a run a ball before lunch. 

Root mentioned after the Galle Test that the positive batting in spite of losing wickets was a specific plan they had drilled into the players for sub-continental conditions and even as more batsmen fell around the proactive Buttler – who reached 50 from 50 balls – England continued to take on the Sri Lankans.

Buttler had clearly been working on his sweeping and ended up scoring 51 of his 63 runs from sweeps, reverse-sweeps and slog-sweeps. It was the highest percentage of runs scored using sweep shots for any Test batsman in an innings that passed 50, but eventually it would be his undoing as he top-edged a sweep to find backward point. At 171/7 it looked as if England would be lucky to crawl past 200 but the tail wagged in extraordinary fashion as the hosts lost control.

Moeen Ali and Ben Foakes contributed some key runs before Adil Rashid put in a very Adil Rashid cameo, thwacking a quick 31 before becoming Perera’s latest victim. 

As those three came and went, Sam Curran was at the the other end batting slowly, much like Burns had earlier in the day. 

Indeed, the all-rounder had 16 off 65 balls when England’s ninth wicket fell and James Anderson strolled to the crease, and with Curran fearing there wasn’t much time left, he reached into his bag of tricks to produce what could turn out to be a match-turning innings. 

Curran, known simply as ‘Sam’ on the stadium scoreboard, battered Sri Lanka around the park, notching six maximums to pass a half-century before he’d even hit his first four. Curran is now the only player in Test history to bring up their first three 50s with a six. 

The 20 year old and his seam partner Anderson managed the game superbly at the end, farming the strike for Curran who poured petrol onto the dying embers of England’s innings and exploded them beyond 250 only to eventually find a boundary fielder having dragged England to 285. 

Sri Lanka looked like they would at least be able to console themselves in not losing any wickets in the twelve overs they faced as the day petered out and the sun went down over the central Sri Lankan jungle.

But then Jack Leach removed Kaushal Silva with a sublime delivery, taking the perfect line, length and grip from the pitch to beat Silva’s edge and clip off-stump. 

The hosts ended the day 26/1 which is hardly an irretrievable situation, as England showed, but on Thursday they will need to show as much aggression and technique as the tourists did in their innings when it mattered. 

So far this tour, there hasn’t been much evidence of that. 

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