Cricket Expert & Columnist
England need another 36 runs for victory in Galle after initially slumping to 14-3 at the start of their second innings against Sri Lanka; watch day five of the first Test live on Sky Sports Cricket from 4.10am on Monday.
Last Updated: 17/01/21 2:56pm
Michael Atherton has backed England to hold their nerve and go 1-0 up against Sri Lanka despite a disastrous start to their run chase on the penultimate evening of the first Test.
Chasing a modest target of 74 after finally dismissing Sri Lanka for 359 in their second innings, the tourists collapsed to 14-3 on a turning wicket, with both openers again falling to spinner Lasith Embuldeniya and skipper Joe Root the victim of an untidy run-out.
However, Jonny Bairstow and Dan Lawrence managed to shepherd England to stumps at 38-3 and Sky Sports pundit Atherton expects them to complete the victory when play resumes on Monday morning.
“At the end, to watch those spinners in operation with men round the bat, the ball kicking and spitting off the surface – it was a fabulous watch,” Atherton told The Cricket Debate.
“There’s a bit of a panic when you see the England captain run out by about 10 yards, dropping his bat and rolling in the turf. The very next ball, Bairstow was almost run out himself.
“There was just that sense of panic enveloping the players out in the middle and in the dressing-room. They’ve got a bit more to do but England should still win this game.
“When you’re chasing 70-odd you need one partnership early on of 20 to 30 and that just knocks a big hole out of the target. Bairstow and Lawrence did very well under tremendous pressure.
“It’s not beyond the realms of possibility Sri Lanka could do something miraculous tomorrow. After Buttler, you’ve got Curran on a king pair and then a slightly longer tail than normal.
“But England should still have enough to get home and, if they do, that’ll be a tremendous performance on the back of very little cricket coming into this game.”
Atherton reserved specific praise for Test debutant Lawrence, who scored 73 to help build a sizeable England total in the first innings and batted calmly under pressure following the rush of early wickets on the fourth evening.
Lawrence survived the final half-hour to reach the close unbeaten on seven alongside the experienced Bairstow and Atherton believes the experience bodes well for the 23-year-old’s long-term Test prospects.
“He shaped up well in the first innings – he looked as though he could play, looked ready for the step up in grade and his game was well organised,” added Atherton.
“Then he came out tonight, there was a real sense of panic enveloping the England team at that stage and he put that to bed. It’s a small partnership but, had England lost another wicket at that stage, suddenly lots can go wrong.
Sri Lanka vs England
January 18, 2021, 4:25am
“In little passages like that, you learn a lot about a player’s temperament and character and these are fantastic learning experiences.
“You want to win the game, of course. But when you think about the development of a player’s career, the broader your experiences are, the better equipped you are to deal with whatever’s thrown in front of you.”
Former Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara was pleased by the home side’s fightback in the match following an utterly miserable showing on the first day, when they were rolled over for only 135.
But he agreed that, with England needing just another 36 to reach their target, it was hard to see any prospect of a Sri Lanka win unless their spinners capture another quick cluster of wickets early on day five.
“It looked after the first two days as if England were going to win at a canter, but great character shown by Sri Lanka in terms of technique, temperament and resolve to at least come back and set 74 as a target,” said Sangakkara.
“Those wickets at the start of the innings, coupled with the run-out, really made everyone watching on TV sit up and be riveted to the screen. But it’s going to take something incredible from the Sri Lankan bowlers to pull the match back and win from here.
“It’s happened before and it’s not impossible. For England, all you need is a tiny partnership and it’ll be a stroll for them.
“Sri Lanka can only hope for continuous wickets – three or four before they get to 50 and England have a long tail. In conditions like this, if they get into the tail, they’ll fancy their chances.”
Watch day five of the first Test between Sri Lanka and England live on Sky Sports Cricket from 4.10am on Monday.