Sri Lanka's top five show their mettle - three days too late

Lahiru Thirimanne celebrates his second Test hundred SLC

Kusal Perera played one of the greatest innings of all time. He also has a batting average of 32.13, and just seven scores of more than 50 from 39 innings. He will never have a day that good ever again, and may forever play in the shadow of that 153*.

Still, he could yet become a very good batsman. Signs are, he's trying. Where once he would unfurl the full array of his low-percentage shot-making almost as soon as he arrived at the crease, Perera has recently been more measured at the start of his innings. In the second innings at Galle, where he finished with 62 off 109 balls, he had only 16 runs after his first 50 deliveries. On the recent tour of South Africa, he hit 64 at Centurion, and 60 at the Wanderers. This is a low bar, but at no other stage of his career has he had three fifty-plus scores in the span of five knocks.

But the road has been rough. Understandably, he's often found himself out of the team. But even when let back in the side, he's been yanked up and down the order like a marionette - batting two innings here, failing, moved two positions lower for three further innings, dropped, picked up, moved again.

In the second innings at Galle, Perera got himself set, and when he began to take the bowlers on, allowed his partner to bat in his slipstream and work himself into his own innings. He was part of Sri Lanka's second-ever century stand for the first wicket against England at home. The partnership gave hope that his team might avoid an innings loss, if nothing else. Perera was part of Sri Lanka's fight.


Lahiru Thirimanne has hit one hundred on a supremely flat pitch at this venue, and made an important second-innings half-century last time Sri Lanka were in Galle, but had otherwise produced few innings of note. He's clearly not been a fixture in the Test side, owing mostly to that very modest average.

The road has been rough. There are conspiracy theories doing the rounds that Thirimanne is being picked for reasons that have nothing to do with his cricket. (The actual reasons are more prosaic: Thirimanne is a team man who fields well, has an air of reliability and intelligence about him, has what outwardly seems to be a solid Test technique, and plays in a system where selectors are generally terrible.) He's also frequently been the butt of social media jokes. Perhaps he also feels miffed at being dropped from the ODI team at times when he has been doing OK there.

But in the second innings at Galle, Thirimanne led Sri Lanka back into the match, playing the kind of responsible innings that he had been expected to produce earlier and much more frequently. His 111 off 251 balls was beautifully paced and judged. It set his team on track to their excellent second-innings total. Thirimanne was a major part of Sri Lanka's fight.


As much social media clowning as Thirimanne gets, multiply it twenty-fold and you'll have the number of harsh (but, OK, also sometimes funny) memes that brutalise Kusal Mendis. Partly, this is because Mendis plays - and fails in - more ODI and T20 innings, which are followed and leapt upon by a far bigger Sri Lankan audience than his Test innings.

The road's been rough. Mendis feels he is unfairly targeted by people who don't know much about cricket or batting. He's come out and said as much in public. Meanwhile, he's also played some of Sri Lanka's finest Test innings in the past seven years. And, such is the pattern of his play, will always be the kind of player who has dizzying highs, and haunting lows. His four consecutive ducks in the lead-up to this innings inspired plenty of Facebook savagery. He came to the crease on Sunday as desperate as any batsman could have been to get off the mark.

But in the second innings, he got through the nervous early period. He defended, he left, and though at times he might have been tempted to bat more aggressively to get himself to a score, he played the situation and had England bowl almost 11 overs worth of deliveries at him. His 15 might not read like a lot on the scorecard, but it required a genuinely outstanding delivery from Jack Leach, who got the ball to leap off a length, to remove him. Mendis was a part of Sri Lanka's fight.


Like each of the three batsmen above him, Dinesh Chandimal had substantial expectations thrust upon him following his earliest international innings. Like the others, even he would agree that he's not quite lived up to them. Not that he hasn't totally: he has more Test hundreds than any other member of this top order, though none in the last two-and-a-half years.

His rough road has included spectacularly failed brushes with the captaincy. He was T20I captain at the age of 23, but was dumped in the middle of the World T20 that Sri Lanka went on to win. His Test reign was beset by problems such as illness that kept him out of part of the 3-0 whitewash at the hands of India at home, a ball-tampering saga that saw him suspended for several matches, before eventually he was not just sacked, but also dropped from the side, when Dimuth Karunaratne took over and immediately led Sri Lanka to their biggest Test series win in many years, in South Africa.

Although leadership has almost uniformly brought him sorrow, Chandimal agreed to be stand-in captain for this game in Karunaratne's absence. He also played the kind of innings he is no longer known for in Tests - an attacking 20 off 28 balls that helped lurch Sri Lanka towards the lead before tea. Though perhaps he was the smallest part of Sri Lanka's fight, he did contribute something of value to it.


Angelo Mathews is the most accomplished of Sri Lanka's batsmen, and several members of this England team will have memories of his greatest innings - the stunning 160 at Headingley that helped overturn a three-figure first-innings deficit and lead Sri Lanka to a famous series win.

Last time England were here, though, Mathews was in full-blown war with then-coach, Chandika Hathurusingha. When he made fifty, he'd gesture pointedly to Hathurusingha in the dressing room, and generally went to great lengths to avoid speaking well of him. On top of which, his last four years have been beset by leg injury after leg injury, hamstrings, calves and quads frequently giving up on him, and forcing him into months-long layoffs.

This is his first Test after another hamstring-related hiatus, but in the second innings here, Mathews played the situation perfectly. Sri Lanka needed to take the game deep, so as treacherous as this pitch was, he dug in, got its measure (as much as a batsman can get the measure of a surface like this) and played one of his stone-faced, bad-pitch innings (his second-innings average of 50.35 is substantially better than his first-innings average). Putting on middle-order partnerships, batting with the tail, Mathews was part of Sri Lanka's fight.


Such is the way of Sri Lanka cricket over the past few years, that every batsman in this top five brings severe baggage to the crease. You've prospered only briefly. You've been burned a hell of a lot more. You've had fights with selectors, with teammates, with coaches, and with your own cricketing output, which every single one of these batsmen will agree does not do justice to their talent.

On occasion, such as on that first day, all this baggage leads to collapses so farcical even club teams would be embarrassed by them. At other times, these batsmen pull together and produce feats of resistance. As in this Test, the general trend is that great days are not quite good enough to make up for the bad ones. Should we be surprised at their inconsistency, when so many have been damaged on the journey?