Mon, 01 Mar 2021

Jack Leach's five-for leaves England needing 74 to win

17 Jan 2021, 21:43 GMT+10

Innings break Sri Lanka 135 and 359 (Perera 62, Thirimanne 111, Mathews 71, Leach 5-122, Bess 3-100) lead England 421 by 73 runs

Jack Leach's first five-wicket haul since November 2018 has left England chasing just 74 to win the first Test in Galle.

Leach, who came into this game having played just two first-class games in the last 14 months, has endured a tough time since he last represented England in Mount Maunganui in November 2019. He fell ill on that tour of New Zealand and was subsequently hospitalised with a case of sepsis that he admitted had him fearing for his life.

While he was recalled to the England squad for the tour of South Africa, he fell ill once again and was eventually sent home early to ensure a complete recovery. With the outbreak of Covid-19 adding to the concerns of a man with a reduced immune system (a courtesy of his long-term battle with Crohn's Disease), Leach has admitted there were moments when he wondered if he would ever return the Test team.

In truth, neither of England's frontline spinners have been at their best for much of this game. Lacking the preparation they required, there have been times when they have been unable to harness the undoubted assistance provided by this surface. Both would confess they have bowled more release deliveries than they would like.

Increasingly, however, they started to find their rhythm. And there were moments in Sri Lanka's second innings when Leach, in particular, looked a dangerous proposition with his drift and turn troubling the right-handers.

The wicket of Niroshan Dickwella might have been particularly pleasing for England. It saw Jos Buttler complete the first stumping of his Test career to underline a really accomplished performance with the gloves. Buttler, in his 28th Test, had earlier missed a desperately tough stumping opportunity, but has generally kept impressively in this game. Completing such a dismissal from his old friend, Leach - the pair developed together at Somerset - was due reward for his improvement.

There were also moments it appeared Sri Lanka could set England a testing fourth-innings target. Certainly when Lahiru Thirimanne was at the crease, Sri Lanka will have retained thoughts of repeating their remarkable performance here in 2015, when they overcame a huge first-innings deficit to bowl India to defeat in the fourth innings.

Thirimanne's only other century at this level came on this ground in March 2013. But, since that match against Bangladesh, he had averaged 19.16 in 27 Tests coming into this game. Having failed in the first innings, it is no exaggeration to suggest that, by the time he walked out to bat on the third day, his career - and Sri Lanka's hopes of salvaging anything from this game - were hanging by a thread.

But he revived his side's hopes with an impressively assured contribution in the innings. Showing both patience and composure, he demonstrated a decent defensive technique and put away the loose ball effectively in reaching his first century in 54 Test innings.

Each time it seemed Sri Lanka were on the brink of establishing a strong position, however, England would claim the wicket that pulled them back into the mire.

In the end, it was the new ball that did for Thirimanne. After Sam Curran had moved a couple away from him, he got one to hold its own and take the inside edge of Thirimanne's bat. Shortly afterwards, Dinesh Chandimal was drawn into poking at one from Bess that went straight on.

Still, by the time they reached parity, Sri Lanka still had five wickets in hand. In partnership with Dickwella, Mathews had negotiated a really disciplined spell from England's seamers to add 48 overs in 23.4 overs.

That frustration may well have led to Dickwella's downfall. Attempting to run a short ball to third man, he succeeded only in top-edging the ball into the gloves of Buttler. In the next over, Dasun Shanaka was beaten in the flight by Leach and effectively yorked before Wanindu Hasaranga was drawn into a drive and Root held onto a sharp chance at slip.

While Mathews reached a determined half-century, he was unable to replicate his heroics of Leeds in 2014 and became the final man to fall after edging one that left him from the deserving Leach.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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