Absorbing Cricket in Day One at Galle

Andrew Fernando, inESPNcricinfo, where the title is Mendis 166* headlines Sri Lanka dominance”

How sweet homecomings can be. Having failed to score 300 in any of their six Test innings in South Africa, Sri Lanka rode Kusal Mendis‘s suave 166 not out to a score of 321 for 4 on the first day in Galle. Along the way, Mendis signed up Asela Gunaratne for a sidekick, forging with him a dominant 196-run fourth-wicket stand, of which Gunaratne’s share was 85.

Kusal & asela embrace

This Galle pitch deserves a first-  innings total of at least 400, so although Sri Lanka’s position is strong for now, it is certainly not an unassailable one.

Bangladesh, though, will rue their falling away towards the end of the day. Their first three hours had been disciplined and energetic, the quicks squeezing a little movement from a reluctant surface in the early overs, before the spinners dealt almost exclusively in tight lines and lengths at their initial introduction. Their initial reward for this stretch of good bowling was a scoreline of 92 for 3, but then their pep waivered. The last dismissal came after several hours, not long before the close of play.

That late scalp was well-deserved by Taskin Ahmed, though – he was Bangladesh’s most consistent operator through the day, and it was appropriate that he have at least one scalp to show for his toil.

Mendis’s innings was not without its flaws, but the mistakes came in the early going. He was assured through the middle of the day, and by the end: sublime. The worst shot had been his first. Mendis flashed at a short ball outside off stump from Subhashis Roy, to send an under-edge to the keeper. Bangladesh were celebrating and he was trudging off when the umpires sought to run a no-ball check, with replays showing the bowler had overstepped. Though visibly relieved, the experience was enough to scare Mendis into early reticence – only 22 came from his first 60 balls.

There had been a little juice in the pitch in the early overs, too – a modicum of sideways movement, and just a hint of zip off the pitch. When this disappeared in the day’s relentless heat, Mendis began to prosper. First he parsed the mild spin of Shakib Al Hasan and the moderate turn of Mehedi Hasan. He then withstood Taskin’s intense second and third spells. Eventually Subashis tried to unsettle him with a short-ball assault, but though the occasional bouncer beat his hook shot, and another ball took the splice of his bat, he retained his wicket, and soon enough, began to score off the rib-high balls as well. As always with a good Mendis innings, there was that flicked on-drive, but on this occasion it was the swat-pull that defined his progress through the middle of the day. His first fifty took 101 deliveries but, in the company of Gunaratne – who was also scoring smoothly – Mendis hit his second off 64 balls.

As the day grew long, and Bangladesh began to visibly wilt, Mendis only grew more dominant. He slinked down the crease to hit Shakib over long-on in the 76th over, then slog-swept Mehedi over deep midwicket soon after. He sailed past 150 in the final overs of the day. This innings was not nearly as impressive as his maiden ton – 176 against Australia last year – but he has, nevertheless, already displayed a thirst for big hundreds.

Gunaratne, his partner for 43 overs, rarely appeared troubled at the crease, and was quick to punish anything short. Against the spinners he deployed his favoured sweep and reverse sweep. He glided to a half-century in 85 balls, and rarely failed to find gaps to release the pressure when a few dot balls had built up. This was his third fifty-plus score in five Test innings.

Before Gunaratne, Dinesh Chandimal had produced a long, fruitless stay at the crease. It was not tortured exactly – the ball rarely beating his bat or causing him strife – but it was unambitious in the extreme. Why he embraced this ultra-conservative approach is unclear, particularly as he had just clattered 190 off 253 against the same attack in the tour match last week. Whatever the case, he only succeeded in taking time out of the game. Midway through the afternoon, a sudden burst of energy overtook him: he attempted to flay Mustafizur Rahman through the covers, then tried to slash him a little squarer next ball. The first shot was mistimed, and yielded no run. The second attempt sent a thick outside edge directly to gully, who gobbled up the catch. Chandimal ended with 5 runs to show for 54 balls and 71 minutes at the crease.

The first session had been Bangladesh’s best, as Subhashis, Taskin and Mustafizur delivered impeccable spells to corner Sri Lanka into conservatism. Subhashis had made the first incision, darting a ball back off the seam to rattle Upul Tharanga’s stumps. Mehedi had Dimuth Karunaratne cutting too close to his body to make the second breakthrough. Sri Lanka were 61 for 2 at lunch, and there seemed a chance, at that stage, that their unusual decision to field only six batsmen for this Test would immediately hurt them.

Mendis ensured that would not be the case.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

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