On an intriguing day in Pallekele, Jos Buttler and Sam Curran played eye-catching innings as England posted 285 in their first innings. Patrick Noone looks at how the pair made their runs to get England out of another hole.
It was a familiar story for England at lunch on Day 1. During the first Test in Galle, they’d been 113-5 having attacked 29% of the balls they’d faced; today in Pallekele, the scoreboard read 120-4 and the percentage of attacking shots was up to 33%. If the issue in the first Test was that the visitors were too gung-ho in the early part of the innings, England showed no signs of adapting their game in response.
In Galle, it was Ben Foakes who stepped up to rescue England, here it was first Jos Buttler and then Sam Curran who bailed out the top order with innings that were contrasting in style but equal in their effectiveness. Both players read the respective situations they found themselves in perfectly and both possessed the skill and the nerve to execute potentially match-winning innings with a high degree of calculated risk.
When Buttler came to the crease, England were 65-3 after 19 overs. Batsmen of a different persuasion might have been tempted to dig in, play defensively and see where they were at lunch. It’s fair to say that that’s not Buttler’s natural game and instead, he attacked 59% of the balls he faced before the interval, going to lunch with 38 runs to his name from just 32 balls. Counter-attacking is nothing new, especially for Buttler and for this England team but it was the way he went about his innings that made it an unusual one.
Between his recall to the Test team in the English summer and the first Test of this series, Buttler scored just eight runs from four sweep shots; his innings in Pallekele featured 11 sweeps that brought him 23 runs. It took him eight balls of his innings today to decide that playing with a horizontal bat was the way to go on a pitch already starting to offer healthy turn for the spinners. Once he was in the groove, Buttler added the reverse sweep to his repertoire, plundering 20 runs from the 18 balls against which he attempted the shot.
In all, the 51 runs that Buttler scored from the various types of sweep shot make his innings the fifth most sweep-heavy innings since our database began back in 2006. He had some way to go to surpass Younis Khan’s record of 86 runs from sweeps in a single innings, but that was in a score of 313. Buttler’s sweeps made up 80% of the runs he scored and put Sri Lanka on the back foot at a time when they were in danger of strengthening their grip on the game.
Curran batted alongside Buttler for just under five overs and began in uncharacteristically watchful fashion, happy to let Buttler be the aggressor as he settled into his innings. He attacked just eight of his first 50 balls, scoring ten runs with no boundaries. By the time he was joined by Jimmy Anderson at the fall of the ninth wicket, he had moved on to 16 from 65, still with no fours or sixes and his attacking shot percentage at just 22%.
There was little to suggest that Curran’s innings would evolve from that point to the blistering, 11-over onslaught that saw him finally hole out for 64, having hit six towering sixes on his way to a third half-century in Tests. He added 47 runs from 53 balls, attacking 38% of the balls he faced and propelling England to a total that looks above par in these conditions.
His aggression caused Sri Lanka’s bowlers to lose their lines, having being fairly resolutely around the top of his off-stump in the early part of his innings. Curran became more inventive with his footwork, coming down the pitch to 11 deliveries – scoring 24 runs – after the ninth wicket, compared to just two beforehand and it meant Sri Lanka were wayward and unable to stem the tide.
Of course, lower order contributions such as these are commonplace for this England Test team. In 2018, the batsmen from positions 7-11 average 28.80, barely a run lower than the 30.17 managed by the top six. Conventional cricketing wisdom would dictate that it’s perhaps not a blueprint for a team to find long-term success, but it makes for thrilling, unpredictable cricket and, on this occasion at least, it has been good enough for England to find a way into pole position after the first day’s play.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.