England mine a rich seam as Sri Lanka struggle

England should win this series sometime in the next couple of days. They have deserved it with cricket that has been occasionally sparkling and always far too good for this transitional Sri Lankan outfit, who finished yesterday 407 runs adrift.

Moeen Ali celebrates his century at Chester-le-Street. He went to make an unbeaten 155. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA
Moeen Ali celebrates his century at Chester-le-Street. He went to make an unbeaten 155. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

This time it was Moeen Ali who stamped his authority on the England innings with a carefree, sometimes whimsical undefeated 155, his second Test century. He did what he always does, essays some lovely off-side drives, attacks more than defends and ensures the game moves forward. He needed it as his batting has suffered in recent times but he is an elegant stroke-player who scores at a decent pace. That is exactly what the lower-order players should do although not all would be as lucky as he on 36 when a flashed drive was spilled at gully.

It was a shock after Friday’s exhibition of catching by Sri Lanka. Alastair Cook, Nick Compton and Alex Hales all fell to stunning catches and yet yesterday they could not catch a thing.

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It allowed England to march steadily on towards 498, a first innings of real and psychological dominance. However, it could have been 200 fewer and mattered little. This match, much like the first, was always about how the Sri Lankan batsmen fared against the England seam attack and just like Headingley last week the answer was not very well. Within 23 overs they were six wickets down and staring another massive innings defeat in the face.

The difference, or at least biological difference between the Sri Lankan seamers and the English ones was mostly height.

The pitch was sluggish but still offered some movement and the key for seamers was to drag the batsmen forward. Happily that is exactly what both Stuart Broad and James Anderson attempt to do in every match and they both delivered testing spells with the new ball. It was the introduction of Chris Woakes though that really accelerated Sri Lanka’s demise. He took three wickets in his first four overs and looked threatening with every ball. The one that prised the stubborn Kusal Mendis from the crease was unplayable.

Mendis had shown considerable grit in stonewalling the opening salvoes but the ball from Woakes was of good length and bounced sharply to take the shoulder of the bat and fly to Anderson at gully. It was the kind of ball that if delivered in Australia would make him a sensation. He has flattered to deceive as an international cricketer but after a breezy 39 here he was delivering a series of wicket-taking balls at just under 90 miles per hour.

He clearly has some talent and if harnessed correctly could double up with Ben Stokes as a true international all-rounder. If it is going to happen it has to happen now as he is 27 years old.

After his burst there was a period of serenity, helped by Alastair Cook introducing the gentle off-spin of Moeen Ali, but the killer instinct came back in the last hour with the return of Anderson and Broad. The latter made the breakthrough as Rangana Herath fended to gully, Anderson taking a sharp catch and then Shaminda Eranga edged hard and high, James Vince leapt and parried the ball for Joe Root to complete a quite brilliant catch.

The morning session saw Sri Lanka drop three easy chances and in the evening England caught flies. It is not the only difference between the sides but it is as good a way as highlighting the gulf in class between these two teams as comparing the batting and bowling.