|Second Test, Pallekele (day three)|
|England 290 & 324-9: Root 124, Burns 59, Foakes 51*, Akila 6-106|
|Sri Lanka 336: Roshen 85, Karunaratne 63, Dhananjaya 59, Leach 3-70, Rashid 3-75|
|England lead by 278 runs|
England captain Joe Root hit a majestic century to put his side in a strong position to win the series against Sri Lanka on day three of the second Test.
Root dominated the spinners, scoring freely to reach his 15th Test ton and first away from home since replacing Alastair Cook as skipper last year.
He fell lbw for 124 to Akila Dananjaya (6-106) but Ben Foakes made 51 not out to take England to 324-9 and a lead of 278 runs when bad light stopped play.
England lead the three-Test series 1-0.
Opener Rory Burns scored his maiden Test fifty, putting on 73 with Keaton Jennings (26) in the morning after nightwatchman Jack Leach was dismissed early on.
Sri Lanka hit back to reduce England to 109-4 but Root, Buttler (34) and Foakes built an imposing target in Pallekele, despite the pitch perhaps not being as difficult to bat on as first thought.
Although seven of England’s nine wickets came from sweep or reverse sweep shots, their attacking approach flustered the hosts and has taken the tourists a step closer to a first series win in Sri Lanka since 2001.
A special innings
Before the series, Root called on his side to be “bolder” and more “courageous” on the subcontinent and exemplified the merits of that positive approach in a truly outstanding knock, one of the best of his career.
He used his feet well and demonstrated fine shot selection – sweeping and reverse sweeping only full or wide deliveries and not getting into trouble with pre-meditated strokes that proved the undoing of others.
Even after Ben Stokes, who moved down to five to allow Root to bat at four, fell for a duck to reduce England to 109-4, the captain stuck to his convictions, putting on 74 in just 83 balls with Buttler.
The game was still in the balance once Buttler and Moeen Ali (10) were dismissed to leave the tourists six down and 173 ahead, but Root firmly pushed it England’s way, rotating the strike and hitting two towering sixes to help his side add 128 runs in the afternoon session.
Resuming on 98 after tea, Root reached three figures with perhaps the streakiest shot of his innings, edging through third man for four before ripping off his helmet and yelling in delight to celebrate only his second hundred this year.
He carried on in the same fashion, surpassing Nasser Hussain’s previous mark of 109 for the highest score by an England captain in Sri Lanka, before missing a ball that straightened with a slightly tired stroke to be trapped plumb in front.
Live by the sweep, die by the sweep
This was the most obvious day of Root’s tenure as captain that England looked like his team, playing the way he wants and incorporating the calculated risk that has made the one-day international side so successful.
As always such a positive approach comes down to execution. Get it wrong and it looks reckless. Get it right, as Root did, and you can confound the opposition into making mistakes.
After Leach was out lbw on review to Dilruwan Perera for just one, Burns and Jennings batted superbly, hitting the gaps to erase the 46-run first-innings deficit.
It forced Sri Lanka to become more defensive throughout the day, with stand-in captain Suranga Lakmal reluctant to put more than two fielders in close around the bat – something Root, Buttler and Foakes took advantage of later on.
England were far from flawless. Jennings swept at one that was too short and edged the ball off his body to first slip, while Buttler similarly tried to reverse sweep a delivery that Akila cannily sent down much slower and shorter than the previous ball and undercut it onto his stumps.
Burns and Stokes simply missed deliveries that straightened, but then wasted England’s two reviews on clear lbw decisions, when Moeen and Adil Rashid could have used them later to be reprieved for being hit outside the line and an inside edge respectively.
However, England’s boldness has paid off overall.
Fine Foakes impresses again
Foakes showed there was another way to play on this pitch though, generally standing more upright and going back to work the ball square on both sides.
Speaking on The Cricket Social, ex-England all-rounder Zafar Ansari said his former Surrey team-mate had remodelled his technique after watching Australia’s Steve Smith during last year’s Ashes series.
After his fine century on debut in Galle, this has been another confident knock from the 25-year-old, staying calm even when Akila dismissed Root and Sam Curran in consecutive balls to help England add 23 more vital runs before bad light intervened, shortly followed by heavy rain.
Together with his superior ability behind the stumps to Buttler and Jonny Bairstow, Foakes is putting himself in the reckoning to be England’s long-term Test wicketkeeper.