England close in on series whitewash against Sri Lanka

Late wickets leave tourists in sight of victory in Colombo

Day 3 close: England 336 & 230 lead Sri Lanka 240 & 53-4 by 274 runs

In their sights is England’s first overseas whitewash in a three-match series since their tour to New Zealand in 1962-3. On another eventful day of Test cricket in Colombo, Sri Lanka ended on a desultory 53-4 in pursuit of an increasingly distant target of 327.

Once again it was the England spinners, so often a source of ridicule in this part of the globe, who started the rot before a spectacular late intervention by England’s pair of pacemen.

In the final session Moeen Ali, wicketless in the first innings, dispatched both of Sri Lanka's left-handed openers in classic fashion. One delivery brushed the outside edge of Danushka Gunathilaka's bat, another drifted through the gate of Dimuth Karunaratne, who has been such an obstacle in this series. Meanwhile Jack Leach, courtesy of yet another review upheld, a disturbingly frequent event in this Test match, had Dhananjaya de Silva lbw.

Then came the quicks. Ben Stokes knows how to torment the Sri Lankan middle order. He demonstrated that beyond doubt in the first innings. Now he bounced Angelo Mathews again, who could not resist the hook shot. The contact was poor and the ball ballooned to the leg side and there at deep-ish mid-wicket, was Stuart Broad sprawling nobly on the turf to take a superb catch.

So England maintained their ascendancy in this series, albeit with the odd hiccup along the way. With the bat they reached their desired destination – a lead in excess of 300 – but not via the approved route. They had a ballast of a first innings lead of 96, which was just as well since within an hour of Sunday’s play they had slumped to 39-4 in a bizarre first session.

Even more surprising than England’s upper order collapse, which has, after all, been a relatively regular feature of their recent Tests, was the fact that Stokes set off for the pavilion on three separate occasions in the belief that he had been dismissed. Yet only once was he required to continue all the way to the dressingroom.

There was a little no-ball saga with the wrist spinner, Lakshan Sandakan, Stokes and umpire Sundaram Ravi the protagonists. Twice Sandakan celebrated dismissing Stokes, caught at cover on 22, caught at slip on 32. On both occasions it transpired that no part of Sandakan’s front foot was behind the line as he delivered the ball. So Stokes was reprieved. Subsequently it became apparent that Sandakan had overstepped 13 times in his first five overs without ever being called by the umpire Sundaram Ravi.

Of course Sandakan is the main culprit here, but he was given a false sense of security by the silence of Ravi. It behoves the umpire to call these transgressions, though there is a reluctance to make those tight decisions since the camera can be such a stern witness. The umpire should, at least, in a spirit of co-operation – and self-preservation – keep informing the bowler how close he is to the line.

These aberrations aided England's recovery and so did another polished knock from Jos Buttler, who arrived at the nadir of the innings. By the time Buttler departed there were 168 runs on the board and he had purred to 64 mostly from singles against a preposterously deep-set field, which usually had five men on the boundary. There were further minor contributions from the lower order but this was a messy way for England to consolidate upon Sri Lanka's extraordinary collapse on Saturday afternoon.

The ball had not misbehaved that much during that torrid first hour for England's batsmen. Keaton Jennings, propping forward, bat in the wrong place, was lbw to the first ball of the day from Dilruwan Perera. Soon after Rory Burns missed a similar delivery as he sought runs wide of mid-on. Then Jonny Bairstow became the victim of another fine catch at forward short-leg, taken by substitute fielder, Kaushal Silva, and when Joe Root's leading edge was caught by the bowler, Malinda Pushpakumara, Sri Lanka might have sniffed a chance for another upheaval.

However with two new batsmen at the crease, albeit the mighty Stokes and Buttler of IPL fame, the field was spread far and wide, and this pair sensibly patted the ball into the gaps. There has seldom been such a serene recovery from a dodgy situation though if Sandakan had been more careful with his front foot England might still have been severely embarrassed.

Stokes did not make the most of his reprieves. On 42 he had an unnecessary heave against Perera and was caught on the long-on boundary for 42. Buttler had used his feet deftly throughout his innings, which worked very well against the off-spinners. But in mid afternoon Sandakan got the ball to spin so sharply down the leg-side that Buttler was stranded out of his ground. Buttler has been admirably consistent against the spinners; the one misgiving is that this 64 was his highest score of the series.

After that Moeen, passively by his standards, Adil Rashid, wristily, and Ben Foakes, as competently as ever, ensured that England's lead was substantial. For Sri Lanka, Perera took his 22nd and last wicket of the series when he dismissed Leach, more than anyone else; Malinda Pushpakumara snuck in for three cheap wickets while the more expensive Sandakan spun the ball further than anyone despite his feet often being in the wrong place. - Guardian