You could pretty safely say that the England of old—Andy Flower’s world-beating England—would have put the current second Test match beyond the Sri Lankans by now.
Perhaps, when play resumed on Day 3 with England six wickets down, Andy Flower’s world-beating England would have scored another 100 runs, not another 45. Perhaps in the 12 overs prior to lunch, Stuart Broad and James Anderson would've bowled with more discipline. Perhaps with Graeme Swann at their disposal, England would have made more of a turning and deteriorating pitch.
But this was not the old world-beating England. This was the new era, Peter Moores-Alastair Cook England, and things on Day 3 were very different to how they would once have been.
England opted to use the heavy roller before play in an effort to flatten out the pitch slightly and allow their batsmen to perhaps put the game beyond Sri Lanka by extending their lead to beyond 150. As it was, the Sri Lankan seamers extracted some life from the Headingley pitch and England’s lower order—Matt Prior is not the player he used to be and the bowlers are an inexperienced bunch—capitulated to 365 all out.
The lead was just 108.
Nothing quite demonstrates the wonderful intricacies of Test cricket than the effect such a swift end to England’s innings can have. For just one hour after England had used the heavy roller, Sri Lanka, in the innings interval, used it too.
Yorkshire, whose home ground is Headingley, are said to rarely use the heavy roller once, let alone twice, for the nullifying effect it can have on the pitch. Lo and behold, for the remainder of the day, the sprightly pace and bounce on show when Sri Lanka bowled to England was nowhere to be seen.
England did bowl far too short in the mini-session before lunch, and they got worse as the day wore on. But in retrospect, England’s move to look toward scoring big runs and using the heavy roller was a negative and risky strategy. They’d have been better served leaving the pitch to deteriorate and backing their bowling attack to perform better than Sri Lanka’s on a helpful pitch.
As it was, England, less suited to bowling on flatter pitches, struggled for the rest of the day. Stuart Broad and James Anderson certainly bowled too short. While Paul Farbrace was at pains to suggest this was merely poor execution of a plan to bowl fuller, it’s hard to believe two such experienced international cricketers can bowl so short for so long by accident. More likely is that Farbrace was covering his bowlers' backs, having seen a poor plan not come together.
Why England are bowling the wrong length on a pitch that you simply must bowl full on is another question altogether.
The day also reopened the debate surrounding Moeen Ali as a spin bowler. Only after the pace bowlers struggled for 55 overs was Moeen given a proper spell by Cook, his captain clearly not entrusting him with responsibility. However, when Moeen took two wickets in consecutive overs, it not only raised questions over Cook’s handling of the 27-year-old, but whether England should be picking a more obviously front-line spinner on pitches such as these.
Cook’s record captaining spinners is conspicuously poor. Swann essentially captained himself, but since Swann, Cook has overseen Simon Kerrigan, Scott Borthwick and now Moeen, all with poor results.
Although it should be noted that while Moeen should have bowled earlier than he did on Day 3, it was understandable why he was held back for so long. After all, he is, whatever he may tell the media, only a part-time spinner, and Cook can harbour legitimate doubts over his ability. This, though, is an issue in itself. Can England get away with picking Moeen as a spinner if Cook doesn't see him as one?
Perhaps his two wickets will change the nature of the debate; for now he may be seen in a better light. Cook may entrust him with more overs and more responsibility. But it does say something about his intuition, or rather lack of, that he took so long to bowl him.
Another issue on a worrying day for England was the continued struggles of Matt Prior behind the stumps with more unconvincing glove work.
For Prior, as it will be for Cook, Moeen and his pace troops, tomorrow is a huge day. Sri Lanka lead by 106. If the pitch stays flat, 250 may be a target that could be easily chased, but with Rangana Herath being comfortably the best spinner in the match and the pitch deteriorating, 250 could also be mightily difficult. These are early but important days for the immediate future of English cricket.