Opportunities aren’t infinite. Certainly not in this caper.
Chris Woakes has been around the professional game and the England team long enough to know that. Players more talented than he have failed to make it at the top level.
Until Ben Stokes broke down, Woakes couldn’t have realistically envisaged himself playing Test cricket this summer. Not with the incumbent seamers self-selecting. Doubly so when Jake Ball was picked as their reserve.
Remembering too that his last hit out for England netted him two wickets in as many Tests, his six starts in all netting a total of eight wickets at a profligate 63. That’s not the way meaningful top-flight careers are meant to start.
But in the space of seven days back in an England shirt, it is hard to pinpoint a single thing Woakes has done wrong. His display in Sri Lanka’s first innings at Lord’s was nothing short of world class.
After Jonny Bairstow shelled the howler off his first ball the previous afternoon, and he failed to take a wicket for the rest of the day, a lesser competitor may have excused themself for it all getting a bit too hard. Woakes did the opposite.
His first ball this morning to Kusal Mendis was full, quick, straight and given leg before. Most bowlers are happy just to get their first of a day out of the way before getting to work, in consecutive days Woakes had got his spot on.
Quarter of an hour later, he produced the ball of the match, an utterly unplayable delivery to Angelo Mathews. The type fast bowlers dream of that hit the seam off a good length, nip away and rocket into the outside edge. More often than not, his next ball would have earned a wicket too, beating Dinesh Chandimal for pace, taking the inside edge this time, and just missing the leg stump on the way through.
His seven-over spell was as relentless as any in this series, CricViz calculating that on average the length Woakes bowled was a metre fuller than his shift the evening before, batsmen troubled accordingly.
Later, he had to wait 15 overs before getting a chance with the second new ball, James Anderson and Stuart Broad given every opportunity to race through the lower order. No surprise what Woakes did when he got chucked the ball with one wicket to get: a perfectly directed leg cutter, again with the first ball of his spell. Innings over.
After taking six Tests to get to his first eight wickets at this level, the second eight have taken three innings. Opportunity taken.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka had created a window for themselves to force a result their way in and avoid the indignity of a three-zip defeat. Until now, at no stage had they started a third day with any chance of so much as saving a Test. Winning the first session today was vital.
They couldn’t. This is the affliction of developing teams– the vital sessions are too often beyond them. New Zealand showed as much against Australia last winter; each time the Black Caps got near a positive result they would consistently collapse. Sri Lanka did as much today, losing all of their best five batsmen before lunch to the English pace attack.
Most negligent was Lahiru Thiramanne, wafting at a Steve Finn delivery with seven minutes remaining in the session. A stroke that was the very definition of limited upside, unlimited downside. All said, 5 for 56 was the damage by the interval.
It would have made the next hour all the more frustrating for the visitors as Kusal Perera and Rangana Herath got motoring. It wasn’t always orthodox, but it got the board ticking over. It’s disappointing that we haven’t seen Perera until the third Test after his drugs ban was overturned as it sure was fun watching him spank Broad right back past him twice, with both old ball then new. As for Herath, he popped Anderson over the slips like it was the role he was born to play. The result was 54 runs in 13 overs. If only they were coming together with the score 305 rather than 205.
Both eventually fell before Sri Lanka’s fast bowlers doing as they have all series with the bat, this time not even troubling the scorers. Anderson’s second wicket brought his 20th of the series at just ten. As for Broad, his first spell today was back to his very best, perhaps pricked by the fact that he lost his mantle as the world’s top ranked bowler before the Test.
Returning to the earlier theme: one more opportunity would also be available to the beleaguered Nick Compton. In a change of scenery, he was back to where he made his start as an Test player at the top of the order after Alastair Cook injured a knee (albeit not seriously, England officials say).
But he just couldn’t seize it. He leathered the first poor delivery to the cover point boundary, and picked up two other boundaries square of the wicket, but on 19 was found out again lunging, nicking and departing with 19 to his name. When it comes to Compton, it’s all been said.
Sri Lanka didn’t necessarily deserve another chance after their earlier collapse, but they got one after Nuwan Pradeep put on a Glenn McGrath impression down the Lord’s slope, bringing balls back to Joe Root and James Vince in consecutive deliveries, both hitting stumps.
Then: a late wicket, Bairstow suffering a similar fate to those who came before him; Pradeep once more through the gate.
But true to form again, they didn’t capitalise. Chandimal, who committed the ultimate ‘keeper’s sin in Durham by not getting a glove to an edge behind repeated the dose in the moments before stumps, Alex Hales the beneficiary after his edge was waved through.
Sometimes you just don’t deserve to win.