April 19, 2019

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    Australia stamp their authority

    January 26, 2019

    Sri Lanka 144 and 1 for 17 (Thirimanne 6*) trail Australia 323 (Head 84, Labuschagne 81, Lakmal 5-75) by 162 runsIf it did not quite turn out to be the breakthrough batting day Australia had been yearning for all summer, the hosts were still able to savour their highest partnership and individual scores of the summer courtesy Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne, to leave supremacy in the first Test against Sri Lanka firmly in the hands of Tim Paine's team.

    Neither Head nor Labuschagne had looked immediately comfortable in the wake of a pair of early wickets, but ground their way through the difficult period to score more rapidly and ultimately put on 166 for the fifth wicket. Both were dismissed within sight of centuries, and by innings' end Australia's batsmen had completed 113 individual innings since Usman Khawaja notched their last Test hundred, in Dubai as far back as October.

    The ball swung deviously for Suranga Lakmal in the final session, helping Sri Lanka's senior paceman to swerve past Head and then draw an edge from captain Paine first ball. Debutant Kurtis Patterson showed off his languid, fluid style in making 30, and Mitchell Starc struck a handful of uncomplicated blows before Australia were dismissed with six overs remaining for the night, a tantalising period for the pacemen that Pat Cummins took advantage of by finding Dimuth Karunaratne's outside edge with the very last ball.

    Nevertheless, Head and Labuschagne put Australia in a position to dictate terms in the match, having bowled the Sri Lankans out for a meagre 144 on day one after Dinesh Chandimal had won the toss and chosen to bat first. Following a year of tribulation for Australian cricket, the home side are looking for progress in their final Test series before preparing to defend the Ashes in England later in 2019.

    Labuschagne, having appeared in full control, was crestfallen to have spooned a simple chance to short midwicket from the bowling of Dhananjaya de Silva shortly before the new ball was due. Head was similarly frustrated to be lbw when he could not get his planted front foot out of the way of Lakmal's inswing.

    After surviving 25 overs on the first innings to get as far as 40, Marcus Harris appeared to have set himself up for the long innings his talent has so far suggested is well within his capabilities at Test level. However, uncertainty in handling shortish balls wide of the off stump was to catch-up with Harris, when in the very first over of the day he followed up an attractive cover drive by hesitating on a cut shot at Lahiru Kumara to send a simple catch to point.

    At the other end, nightwatchman Nathan Lyon was worked over by Lakmal, ultimately succumbing to a length ball moving subtly away to catch the edge and fly low to Kusal Mendis in the slips. Lyon did not hesitate to walk upon seeing the catch, but the third umpire was required to adjudicate to confirm that it had carried.

     

    Suranga Lakmal picked up five wickets Cricket Australia/Getty Images
    Head walked to the middle with a history of looking uncomfortable against the short ball during the India series, and Lakmal's first delivery to him was appropriately directed. Head ducked out of the way very late, before the ball continued to climb for four byes. Labuschagne looked similarly ill at ease during his early minutes at the crease, as the visitors tightened the scoreboard in search of a way through to Patterson.

    However, the pressure imposed was gradually shaken off by Head and Labuschagne, as they crept up towards the Sri Lankan total. Head found gaps through gully and cover, while Labuschagne worked the ball around effectively even though he was occasionally made to look uncomfortable by Dilruwan Perera. A Labuschagne sweep to the boundary raised the 50 partnership - the first of the Test - before Head clipped Lakmal fluently through midwicket to take the Australians into a first-innings lead.

    To wrestle their way back into the contest, Sri Lanka needed a wicket soon after play resumed, and in the first over of the post-tea session, they should have had it. Lakmal squared up Head with his third ball, coaxing an edge from around the wicket that flew at an eminently catchable height. But Niroshan Dickwella's weight transfer right at the point of delivery, following the ball's angle in rather than the edge away, took his balance in the wrong direction, and his late, correcting dive saw the chance go to ground.

    This reprieve allowed Head and Labuschagne to re-set, which they did with a growing measure of control and confidence though still scoring at a relatively sedate pace. Head was able to drive, cut and pull boundaries, while Labuschagne cut firmly forward of point to raise his first half-century in Tests.

    Chandimal rotated his bowlers regularly but as the pitch became more docile for seam and spin and very little reverse swing was available, it became simply a case of Head and Labuschagne maintaining their concentration. Given how often the Australians had struggled in this respect during the India Test series, it was a welcome sight for the national team coach Justin Langer to witness how efficiently they did so.

    With Sri Lanka burning their final review to a highly optimistic lbw shout, a century appeared to beckon for Labuschagne, only for him to lose concentration. Head was able to keep his composure, however, until Lakmal's movement found a way through. When Paine was well held by Mendis the very next ball, a rapid change of innings was in the offing, but Patterson offered plenty of promise while 51 runs were added for the final three wickets.

    Sri Lanka were left with the job ahead of them, and it was to be made still more vexing when Karunaratne nibbled at Cummins' final ball, well pitched from around the wicket, to deliver an edge to an exultant Paine behind the stumps.

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