Kandy Test Day 5 – from Sigiriya

England 290 and 346

Sri Lanka 336 and 243

England win by 57 runs and lead the series 2-0

This Test started with us up a mountain, trying to keep up with the score as we staggered up to the highest point of Little Adam’s Peak, and it ended very similarly, with Jon and I sharing earphones to listen to the last couple of overs, sitting in a patch of shade at the top of Sigiriya Rock.

In the end it was a very quick wrap-up of a Test that had been unpredictable throughout. England needed to take three wickets, and Moeen Ali removed both Dickwella and Lakmal in the sixth over of the day, and Jack Leach took the last, three overs later, to make it his first five-for. Barely half an hour after the day’s play had started, it was all over.

Achieving a series win in Asia is a great achievement for England, and especially against a side who have put up a very good fight, especially in this Test. There were certainly times during the last five days when I would rather have been in Sri Lanka’s shoes than England’s. I think the two real strength of this England team which have allowed them to do well in this series are, firstly, a strong spin attack: none of the four spin bowlers (Joe Root contributed too, occasionally) are as good as Graeme Swann in his pomp, but having four good spinners is better than having one great one, over the course of a whole Test.

The second strength has been the batting of the lower-middle order. Root may have been the stand-out batsman in England’s second innings, batting at four even when there had been a nightwatchman, but it was Jos Buttler and Sam Curran in the first innings who kept England in the game at all, and Ben Foakes in the second innings who really worked to make sure there was a total to give England’s bowlers some hope. This really only reiterates what we found in Galle: England don’t have a very strong top order at the moment, but they bat very deep. A fifty looks as likely to come from the number nine as the number three (whoever that might be on any given day).

England’s next job is to see whether they can play well and compete in a dead rubber. It has been one of their failings in the past, so it will be interesting to see how they tackle Colombo next Thursday. We should get a good idea of their mindset once we know the team: it would be tempting for the selectors to rest a few overworked players and give some of the others in the squad a run, but that might signal a lazy don’t-care attitude. Eoin Morgan tried something similar in the last of the ODIs before the Test series, and it went horribly wrong for previously unbeatable England. But on the other hand, it feels like Jonny Bairstow in particular, and possibly Broad too, really deserve a go. So we’ll see what happens.

Once the game was over, Jon and I spent the rest of the morning exploring Sigiriya, the ruins of a 4th Century palace built on the top of a huge rock outcrop rising above the jungle, with almost sheer sides only punctuated by the precarious steps and ledges that allow a stream of tourists access to the summit. It is surrounded by further ruins, of palaces and monks’ retreats, in an intricate and extensive water garden. A really amazing place.

By noon we were drenched in sweat and ready for a break, when conveniently the heavens opened. We spent the afternoon in Dambulla’s Cave Temples – carved out of the rock in a hill south of Dambulla are five chambers decorated floor to ceiling with Buddhas, some standing, some sitting, some huge ones reclining; some sculptures, some paintings on the walls and ceiling, but all quite incredible: there are more than 150 in total.

So that was two World Heritage sites and a series win. Quite a successful day all told.

EDITED to add another highlight for the day: my stats question was read out on the BBC’s Test Match Special podcast, with Dan Norcross and Andy Zaltzman, and Zaltz failed to answer it. To be fair, it was a pretty tough question or I’d have looked up the answer myself. My question was: “So far in his Test career, Rory Burns’ scores have been 9, 23, 43 and 59. This means that each innings has become his highest score. What is the longest streak that a cricketer has had from their debut in which the number of runs they score in each innings has been higher than all previous scores?” If anyone can shed light on this, I think both I and Andy Zaltzman would like to know!

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Kandy Test Day 4 – from Sigiriya

England 290 and 346

Sri Lanka 336 and 226-7

The end of day four, and the game that at one stage looked like it would be over in less than three days is still going strong. And it is not much easier to predict a result now than it was at any point during those four days.

Back in the mists of time when this tour was first arranged, the Sri Lanka Cricket Board announced that England fans would only be able to get into the Tests by paying about £60 each per day for a luxury hospitality package. None of the experienced campaigners believed them, and it ended up being nonsense, as predicted, but there was enough doubt in my mind that when I planned this holiday I decided to block out the whole Galle Test, but only to stop in Kandy for two nights. If I could get affordable tickets, then we’d go to a day of the Test; but if not, no matter, we’d see the sights and then move on to a bonus three days in the Cultural Triangle before flying back to the UK. Which is why the afternoon of the fourth day of this Test saw us on a bus heading away from the cricket ground and out of the hill country.

The morning we spent visiting the famous Temple of the Tooth in central Kandy, one of the most important religious sites in Buddhism and home to a relic of the Buddha himself, which was rescued from destruction in India hidden in the hair of a Sri Lankan princess. The temple complex is an elegant collection of building, decorated with delicate carving and colourful frescos, and very much a working and bustling religious site rather than a tourist attraction. We were shown around by an elderly guide who remembered the last two British governors of Sri Lanka, and had been living and working around the temple ever since. I was glad we found the time to visit this important site while we were in Kandy.

After lunch, we hopped on a bus to Dambulla and tuned in to Guerilla Cricket’s coverage of the second session. Angelo Mathews and Roshen Silva were the two dangermen England feared, and together they built a 73-run partnership that got Sri Lanka to 176-4, more than half way to their target, before Moeen Ali took the wicket of Silva. The previous ball, CricViz had given England’s win likelihood at 34%; after the wicket it jumped to 67%. Angelo Mathews then rebuilt with Dickwella, reaching 221 before Moeen Ali once again struck. Another wicket fell three overs later, but then the rain arrived, a little earlier than yesterday, with Sri Lanka on 226, needing 75 more runs to reach their target, with three wickets remaining.

I think at this point England are ahead, but it certainly isn’t a done deal yet. Strangely, I’m not as nervous as I expected to be at this point, and I think that’s because there’s a fairly substantial part of me that has come to really like this Sri Lanka team, and that wouldn’t be at all upset to see them pull off this win and level the series, making the final Colombo Test a decider.

Kandy Test Day 3 – close

England 290 and 324-9

Sri Lanka 336

I have had such a fun day commentating on the Test match from the Pallekele media centre with Michael McCann. His project is to record commentary, not for broadcast, but to help him practice and develop as a live ball-by-ball commentator, and he was looking for volunteers to summarise for him and asked me. So I have spent the day talking cricket, while Jon indulged his photographic leanings and took some great photos of the day’s play. It was really interesting watching from the media box, and was a nice chance to catch up with the members of the press that I know, and enjoy the lovely lunch spread they get (thanks Jarrod!)

Photo by Jon Lo (@jonlophoto)

It’s been a fascinating day’s cricket, with the Test swinging in favour of one team and then the other throughout the day. Even now, I really have no idea who is ahead. If England lose their last wicket first thing in the morning tomorrow, Sri Lanka will be chasing 279 in the fourth innings to win. It’s a pretty substantial score, especially given the deterioration of the pitch, although that hasn’t been as marked so far as we might have expected. But in July 2017, just over a year ago, Sri Lanka chased 391 in the fourth innings to win a Test against Zimbabwe in Colombo. The team for that game included seven of the players in the current Test, including most of the batsmen who made the runs. Therefore chasing big fourth-innings totals isn’t going to hold many fears for these players – they have done it before, so can do it again.

The stars of Day 3 were Joe Root with the bat, making his fifteenth and possibly best Test century, and Akila Dananjaya with the ball, taking 6 wickets for 106 runs off 23 overs. Special mentions also for Rory Burns, with his first Test fifty in his fourth innings – and the fourth time in a row that he’s made his highest Test score, how long can he keep that streak going I wonder? – and Ben Foakes who got a fifty to go with his century on debut.

The day ended prematurely with the umpires taking the players off for bad light and/or lightning, giving the groundstaff just enough time to leap into action and cover the entire outfield with tarpaulin before the heavens opened. Fortunately it was a fairly short shower, and by the time we’d cleared up the recording equipment and made way for Sky’s end-of-day summary and interviews (“Oh hi Joe, good knock today”), and gone for a quick drink with Hazel and Ian, the rain had eased off. Hopefully that means play will be able to start on time tomorrow.

Kandy Test Day 3 – tea

England 290 and 259-6

Sri Lanka 336

This was Root’s session. He went in to tea on 98 off 118 balls, looking like he’ll make his fifteenth Test century (is it only fourteen he’s made so far? More than 40 fifties unconverted.) Sri Lanka started the session looking fierce, but once again the pendulum has swung and now is slightly in England’s favour.

Kandy Test Day 3 – lunch

England 290 and 131-4

Sri Lanka 336

Just a quick update now, because today I’m commentating on the game with Michael McCann – just for some practice, and it’s not being broadcast, but it’s great fun to be in the media centre with a good view of the ground and commentating live.

The highlight of the morning was Rory Burns’ 59, his first Test half-century, but it’s a shame he didn’t go on further. Two quick wickets mean Root and Buttler are out there now, and have started their partnership attackingly, but England are still only 85 runs ahead, with 4 wickets down.

Kandy Test Day 2 – from the train

England 290 and 0-0

Sri Lanka 336

Today, Jon and I got the train from Ella to Kandy – one of the most famous and scenic train journeys in the world. It was glorious: impeccable mazes of tea-covered hillsides, the bright green of waist-high new leaves interlaced with indigo convulvulus flowers; mud-brick cottages in hidden dells, surrounded by the elegant white trunks of eucalyptus, the peace only disturbed by the six daily trains; and mountain streams, meandering quietly or leaping from rock to rock down into the valley below, joining together to become fierce torrents or trickling into carefully carved rice paddies, hanging in narrow steps along the contours of the hill. The train passes sedately through all this at a gentle pace, through tunnels and over impressive viaducts, along the top of mountain ridges, stopping at little, immaculate stations, until it arrives, more than five hours later, in Kandy.

And what’s even better, for much of the route there is good enough phone signal that I was able to listen to the Test on Guerilla Cricket.

Everyone’s expectation at the beginning of the day was that Sri Lanka would be rolled over and England would be well into their second innings, and heading for an easy victory, by the close of play. The TalkSport team ran a book on how many wickets would fall in the day, and the lowest number was 11. In fact, only the nine remaining Sri Lankan wickets fell, and it took all but ten minutes of the day for England to take these.

Despite the turnover and high-profile retirements in recent years, Sri Lanka are still a force to be reckoned with, especially at home, and I think the English press are guilty of underestimating them. The star of today was Roshen Silva, who, batting at number seven because of the night watchman, made 86 runs in substantial partnerships with all four of his lower-order colleagues. If England’s tenth-wicket stand was frustrating to Sri Lanka yesterday, all four of the last Sri Lankan wickets had to be ground out by England, during which time Sri Lanka almost doubled their score, from 165-6 to 336 all out – more than fifty runs ahead of England, and certainly now favourites in this game.

England had to bat one over before the close of play, and sent Jack Leach out to face all six balls, with Rory Burns his partner, which adds another name into the long list of people who have opened for England since Strauss retired. Unless of course they’ve decided they need a new number three for each innings from now on; this time Jennings drew the short straw, and so they’ve had to shuffle the batting order accordingly.

Kandy Test Day 1 – from Ella

England 285

Sri Lanka 26-1

We were nearly at the top of the mountain when the first wicket alert pinged on my phone.

Jon and I had decided not to rush our travelling and to make for Kandy in time for Day 3 of the Test, spending the two preceding nights in the hill town of Ella. Dutch Bird Kate, having insisted she was only here for the cricket, succumbed to the lure of the famous Sri Lankan mountain railway and made an overnight trip up to Ella from Kandy. She got the train back down today, in time to get to Pallekele for Day 2, but had just enough time before the train this morning to join us hiking up Little Adam’s Peak, a local mountain which looks impressively high but is in fact just a 45min walk. The steps are steep and tiring, but the views from the top on a clear day like today are sublime.

Four England wickets had fallen by the time we got back down the mountain. Having waved Kate off, Jon and I found the only café in Ella with the Test on the telly, and settled down to watch it with a steady stream of food and cool drinks.

Having started with their now-traditional top-order batting collapse, England’s innings was steadied a little by Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali – although “steady” is probably the wrong word for Buttler’s constant sweeping. However, Buttler’s wicket fell with England still just 171-7, and no recognised batsmen left.

(It’s slightly ironic that England men’s team have an abundance of world-class middle-order players and are really struggling for openers, when England women’s team, at the World T20 in the Caribbean, have a very strong top order and an inexperienced middle. Together, they might make one very good team.)

Enter Sam Curran. Batting with Buttler, Rashid and Leach, he played a supporting role, scoring 16 runs off 64 balls. But once the ninth wicket fell and Anderson joined him, he let loose and made 48 off 54 deliveries, putting on a frustrating (for the Sri Lankans) 60 for the last wicket and helping England achieve an almost respectable first innings score.

We had to leave the café at the innings break, with an hour to go until the close of play, to go to a Sri Lankan cookery class at the Matey Hut. An impressive Sri Lankan woman called Madhur taught a group of us how to make eight different vegetarian curries (the secret is onion, garlic, pandam leaves, curry leaves and lots of coconut) as well as popadoms and rotis. I’m looking forward to trying some of the recipes at home, if we can get hold of all the ingredients. Although it won’t be the same, not cooking in an open classroom overlooking twilit tea plantations, with a constant flow of cats, dogs and kittens looking for dropped scraps and playing with our apron strings.

Whilst we were cooking, Sri Lanka made it to close having scored 26 runs, and lost Silva’s wicket to Leach.

Uda Walawe

We have spent the last two nights in Athgira River Camp, near Uda Walawe National Park. The main draw here is the safaris, and it all feels much more like somewhere in Southern Africa than Sri Lanka. The River Camp turned out to be a safari camp with the “tents” being permanent chalets with fully plumbed bathrooms, their only tent-like feature being canvas roofs. It is set back several miles from the town, meaning you are stuck there for meals (which are much more expensive than outside), but it does have the unexpected bonus of a swimming pool, which we thoroughly enjoyed in the midday heat.

In the mid-afternoon, we set off on our dusk safari to the National Park itself, which is centred around a huge “tank” (man-made lake, created by damming a river, which has been done in Sri Lanka for millenia). I have been on safari in more than a dozen African National Parks and reserves, but this was my first South Asian one. Immediate impressions: although it doesn’t have some of the big draws of African safaris, such as herds of antelopes and zebras, or visible big cats (the leopards in Uda Walawe are very elusive), it has some of the best and easiest game viewing I’ve ever experienced. Within a couple of hundred metres of the gate we were watching and elephant have a mud bath just ten metres from the path, and the viewings continued thick and fast for the full three hours we were there. Wild buffalo, mongooses, monitor lizards, crocodiles and a hare, as well as dozens of birds – a keen birdwatcher would have a field day here, while amateurs like us were satisfied with brightly coloured bee-eaters, rollers and peacocks, as well as huge kites, eagles and hornbills. But the stars of the show are the elephants – smaller than their African cousins, and totally relaxed around vehicles, they don’t even glance up when you pull alongside them, and happily wander right up to the vehicle, ignoring its occupants and the furious clicking of their cameras.

On the way back we stopped at the Elephant Rehabilitation Centre, which rescues young elephants that have been orphaned or abandoned, and raised them until they are old enough to be re-released. We arrived just at feeding time, and the sight of forty hungry baby elephants, some as small as a Shetland pony and some as big as a cart horse, is certainly one to remember.

Mirissa and Ude Walawe

Today can be summarised in animals:

  • Spinner dolphins: a whole pod of them which we came across soon after our whale-watching boat had left Mirissa harbour early this morning, and a nice distraction from worrying about getting sea-sick. (In the event I wasn’t sea-sick at all – I credit the tablets given to us before we boarded the boat, although they may also be responsible for both of us falling asleep in the car in the afternoon.)
  • A sail fish and a flying fish – turns out these are both real things!
  • A Bryce’s whale: huge and low in the water, most easily spotted by the spume from their blow hole as they breathe.
  • A blue whale: even bigger – at least twice the length of our boat, we just saw the length of its back with an unbelievable distance between the blowhole and dorsal fin – it just goes on forever! – and then once it had finished breathing, after five minutes or so at the surface, it would curve over and dive, sweeping its tail out of the water in farewell salute. Its tail alone must have been as tall as me! Then ten minutes underwater and up it would come again – four or five times we saw it surfacing before our crew decided we’d bothered it enough for one day.
  • A mid-sized monitor lizard of some sort, scrambling along the riverbank as we walked to our favourite roti café for lunch.
  • A puppy on the beach, which Jon played with (supervised by its owners – it’s not always easy to identify street dogs from domestic dogs here, but this one definitely had a home) while we sipped our drinks in the shade and enjoyed the beautiful Mirissa beach one last time.
  • A friendly tortoiseshell cat which came and sat in the middle of the court when Jon and I were trying to have a badminton match in our new accommodation, Athgira River Camp near Ude Walawe National Park.
  • Bats – lots of bats! The huge ones I saw in Colombo, leaving their roost for a night’s fruit-hunting or something and flying right over the swimming pool where Jon and I were having a dusk dip. First one or two appeared, and then whole families at a time, with their distinctive slow wing-flap.

Galle to Mirissa

Thanks to England finishing off the Galle Test a day early, Jon and I were able to spend a leisurely morning making our final purchases in Galle and then catching the bus to Mirissa, about an hour East down the coast. I had been worrying a bit about the transport, but Sri Lankan buses seem very straightforward and amazingly cheap. You just turn up at the bus station, ask which bus is going to your destination, jump on the one indicated and pay the conductor when he turns up. Finding your stop is a bit more complicated, but fortunately I have free 3G over here so I kept an eye on the map and yelled when we got to approximately the right spot.

Mirissa is a beach town, with soft yellow sand, turquoise waves that look ideal for bodyboarding, and palm trees. The sky was grey today, but although that make the photos look less impressive, it meant the air temperature was very comfortable. However, I am not a beach bod, so half an hour of playing in the waves was enough for me. We had late lunch of delicious rotis (folded pancakes) at the No1 Dewmini Roti Shop – definitely worth a visit – and then decided to try out the a full spa treatment at the Secret Root Spa. (The secret is not that Joe Root is your masseur, in case you were wondering.)

I think perhaps spa treatments are not for me. It was certainly an experience, which I’m glad I tried, but I’m not sure it relaxed me as intended. First was the Third Eye of the Lord Shiva treatment. This is where you lie back on a massage table and have warm oil poured onto your forehead for three quarters of an hour. Jon really enjoyed it – he found it very relaxing and said it was a full-body sensory experience for him. I, unfortunately, had a couple of persistent mosquitoes buzzing around my ears, which I couldn’t move to flap away without disrupting the flow of oil. My masseur swatted one against my neck, and then had to clear it up. So I never reached a zen-like state.

After that came a head massage to smooth the oil into my hair and neck, which was lovely. Then a full-body massage – another three quarters of an hour of being pummelled and squashed. It surprised me that a trained masseur can hurt pretty much every part of the body fairly easily, and leave no mark. Masseurs should be employed as extortionists for The Mob. I think perhaps I have too much tension, but my upper back in particular took a pummelling.

Finally, once I was entirely smothered in oil, the steam bath. Lonely Planet describes this as “a cross between a coffin and a torture chamber. Patients lie stretched out on a wooden platform, and a giant hinged door covers the body with only the head exposed.” I found the heat bearable, mainly because your head is out in the fresh air, although Jon didn’t like it. But this is a nightmare for anyone with even the slightest bit of claustrophobia. You can move your body a little within the coffin, but you are pinned in place at the neck. I was determined not to call for them to let me out immediately, but it was only by meditating that I managed to stand ten minutes of it. As soon as the masseur returned to ask how we were getting on, I asked to be let out.

All in all, an interesting experience and one I wanted to have while in Sri Lanka, but not necessarily one I would repeat.