In the absence of the crocked Ben Stokes, it was England’s other two all-rounders – Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes – who took centre stage at Chester-le-Street as they put their team in prime position to make it an eighth successive Test victory at the most northerly international cricket ground in the world.
England resumed on a par score of 310-6 after a first day in which Sri Lanka bowled well on a pitch that did not offer them much in return. This was a theme that continued in the opening echelons of the morning session, with Nuwan Pradeep beating the edge of a visibly nervous Woakes on a number of occasions.
Woakes certainly rode his luck as he survived one of the simplest chances he will ever offer before he added to his overnight score as wicket-keeper Dinesh Chandimal, nursing an injured thumb, could not even get a glove on an effort that most club players would have not trouble snaffling. However, it was the drop of Moeen Ali a few overs before that was to prove the most costly. On 36 at the time, the Worcestershire man mis-timed one of his trademark booming drives to a wide delivery and was dropped in the gully.
Three hours later, Ali had certainly made the most of the chance offered to him as he crashed his way to his second Test century, his first for nearly two years, bringing up his 1000th run in the process as he eventually finished unbeaten on 155. This may not have been the most fluent of knocks but it was a score that he desperately needed as question marks surrounding his batting have started appearing recently, although his decision not to take easy singles on offer near the end of the innings left many frustrated, with Graeme Swann describing it as ‘brainless cricket.’
England declared on a weighty 498-9 but not after some more erratic Sri Lankan fielding. After a first day in which they took some stupendous catches, they could not have looked more amateur in comparison yesterday, with fumbles and mis-timed slides a regular occurrence. Even when Steven Finn offered the simplest of return catches to Rangana Herath, many in the crowd were anticipating that he would let it slip through his fingers. Fortunately for everyone he didn’t and, on completion of the catch, the veteran spinner had picked up the 300th wicket of his Test career.
Woakes may not have been entirely comfortable with the bat but when he came on to bowl he looked as though he belonged on the international stage. Having struggled to break into the England side in any format over the last few years, with many critics arguing he was too slow to trouble the best batsmen in the world, the Warwickshire player was by far the most threatening of England’s bowlers.
Coming off the back of a career-best 9-36 for his country earlier in the week, Woakes did not bowl a single bad ball in his seven overs and took three Sri Lankan wickets in a 13-ball spell the likes of which we are accustomed to seeing from team-mate Stuart Broad. His scalps included the captain Angelo Mathews as well as the in-form Kusal Mendis, the only batsman to look vaguely half-decent on the tour so far, with a snorter of a delivery. He bowled with plenty of zip and had fantastic rhythm, regularly clocking 86-87mph deliveries and finishing with figures of 3-9.
James Anderson (2-31) and Broad also bowled well, if not quite matching the exceptional performances they produced under more bowler-friendly conditions at Headingley. The former took the first wicket of the innings, bowling the hapless Dimuth Karunaratne round his legs, whilst the latter ended with 3-35 against his name in the scorebook after picking up two late scalps, the second of which included some exceptional catching in the slips from James Vince and Joe Root.
The only slight negative for England was the continued poor bowling form of Finn. Although economical, he rarely threatened the bat and looked down on pace too. Despite this, Sri Lanka closed on 91-8, still needing another 208 runs just to avoid the follow-on, almost certainly going to succumb to another embarrassing defeat.