Galle, August 4: A wicket fell from the first ball of the first innings of this Test. A wicket fell from the second ball of the second innings. Ten others tumbled throughout the opening day in Galle, where Mitchell Starc’s reverse swing was just as much of a weapon as the anticipated turn on a very dry pitch. But in amongst it all was some good batting, from Kusal Mendis especially. Forget about two tiers of Test cricket, two divisions of batting already exist in this series: Mendis, and everyone else.
His 176 in Pallekele was the difference between the two sides, and his 86 in Galle may again turn out to be a match-winning effort. Much of the script of this Test is yet to be written, but by stumps on day one Sri Lanka were in the stronger position: having been bowled out for 281, they had Australia at 54 for 2 in reply. And most of those runs had come from a frantic David Warner, who was dismissed in the last over of the day.
Warner decided that his runs would come rapidly if at all, and flew by the seat of his pants to 42 from 41 balls. But with four balls left came the critical wicket, as he edged Dilruwan Perera to slip. He had given Australia a platform but like an unqualified builder, one that felt anything but stable. Australia’s batsmen will have to work exceptionally hard against Sri Lanka’s spinners and still trailed by 227 runs, with Usman Khawaja on 11.
Shudders went through the Australian camp when Joe Burns pulled the second ball of the innings to midwicket to give debutant Vishwa Fernando a wicket from his second delivery in Test cricket. For the second time in the day, the scoreboard read 0 for 1. But just as Australia recovered to a degree, so had Sri Lanka to an even greater one. Not immediately, though.
Starc bowled the first ball of the Test to Dimuth Karunaratne, who flicked uppishly to midwicket, where Burns took the catch. Not since Glenn McGrath dismissed Sanath Jayasuriya on the same ground in 1999 had Australia taken a wicket on the first ball of a Test, nor Sri Lanka lost one. By the fifth over, they were 9 for 2 when Kaushal Silva lazily drove away from his body and edged Starc behind.
Starc would go on to finish with 5 for 44, the finest figures by an Australian fast bowler in a Test in Sri Lanka, and the best by any visiting pace bowler in Galle. But not before Mendis, Angelo Mathews and Kusal Perera put some distance between the teams. A 108-run stand between Mendis and Perera was followed by a 67-run union between Mendis and Mathews. As Mendis batted on and on Australia must have feared a repeat of his Pallekele innings.
It was not quite to be, though he was again a class above all others. Mendis was strong through the leg side but also when driving through covers. He launched a couple of sixes, down the ground and over midwicket off Nathan Lyon, and his fifty came up from 74 deliveries. Australia were thrilled when they had Mendis adjudged lbw for 78, but a review found Josh Hazlewood had hooped the ball in too much.
The Australians did not have to wait too long to see the back of Mendis, who on 86 got a faint nick behind when Starc moved one away. It was Starc’s 100th Test wicket and was fine reward for consistent work in tough conditions. By this stage Kusal Perera had already departed, caught at slip off a big-turning Lyon offbreak for 49, but Mathews was still around to trouble the Australians.
Mathews was intent on attacking the spinners and crashed his second ball over long-on for six off Lyon, then followed in Lyon’s next over with a reverse sweep for four. When debutant Jon Holland came back into the attack, Mathews was watchful for five balls and then thumped the sixth over long-on for six. Another six off Holland followed a few overs later.
Australia’s spinners were attacking, giving the ball air and turning it, but Mathews was attacking, giving the ball air and turning it into runs for Sri Lanka. He lost Dinesh Chandimal, caught flicking Hazlewood to short midwicket for 5, but by tea Mathews was still at the crease and Sri Lanka looked dangerous with the score beyond 200.
Australia did well to finish off the innings cheaply enough; the last five wickets fell for 57 runs and all came after tea. Mathews departed for 54 when he flashed at Mitchell Marsh and was caught behind, and Marsh should have had another when Dhananjaya de Silva edged to first slip, but Steven Smith spilled the opportunity and Peter Nevill was unable to clasp Smith’s parry.
Dilruwan Perera fell for 16 when he tried to whip Lyon, bowling around the wicket through leg, but was trapped lbw by a ball that pitched in line and straightened. Eventually Australia did get de Silva, who had been dropped on 17 and went on to make 37. He gave Holland his first Test wicket by attempting to paddle a low full toss, missing, and being adjudged lbw.
Starc came back to finish off the tail, striking Lakshan Sandakan’s stumps with a delivery that swung in, and then bowling Rangana Herath with another ball that tailed in. Starc’s five-wicket haul was greatly deserved, but will mean little unless Australia’s batsmen back him up on day two.