Even when full, the ground at Galle has rarely been a raucous venue. There’s something about its openness, not to mention the scenery and the sea breeze surrounding it, that gives off a laidback air. Without an obscuring crowd, without an embassy of England fans tooting and swaying through Sweet Caroline, the fort is a particularly steadying sight, its grass-covered ramparts freshly green, its crenellations crisply outlined and overlooked by a benevolent watch tower.
Welcome to the austerity games, the stripped-back show that is as far from the crazed excitement of pre-Covid IPL as Quavers are from baked camembert.
When Joe Root walked off the field on Sunday – having scored 186, his second consecutive score of over 150, and demonstrated the kind of return to brilliance that England have been waiting three years for – he deserved his standing ovation. Unfortunately it came from a solitary fan, wearing cut-off jeans and toting a Mary Poppins umbrella.
There was similarly limited appreciation for Lasith Embuldeniya, the 24-year-old whose left-arm spin prevented Root’s batting from winning the day. And yet he was a pleasure to watch, not least for the gorgeous manner in which he approaches the crease and delivers the ball, his lean, athletic figure easing through the motions like a yogi asked to take a beginners’ level class in pilates.
The ball leaves his hand at the top of his whirling arc, leaving each delivery with a speculative look, as if he’s bowling a question mark. On Sunday he made it drift and dip and bounce alarmingly, sometimes turning with vehemence, sometimes just spitting past the edge of the bat. His seven wickets may have yielded 132 runs but they may well have decided the future of the Test for the home side.
This is only the ninth Test of a career that began against South Africa two years ago. He took a five-fer on debut, before dislocating his thumb at the start of the next match, trying to catch Kagiso Rabada off his own bowling. His success since then has been low-key – 40 wickets at 38 – but of all the bowlers Sri Lanka have turned to fill the hole that Rangana Herath’s retirement left, Embuldeniya is the one that comes with the legend’s imprimatur.
“He has all the fundamentals a left-arm spinner needs,” said Herath, “and he also has something I never had, which is height.” He didn’t quite have the game to trouble Root, a player who, having worn the features of a young lad for such a long time, has seemed suddenly to start looking like the 30-year-old man he is. The boyish grin was very much in evidence, but the little-boy-haunted look he’s sometimes worn, when things have not been going his way, has disappeared. No surprise, given that he’s just worked his way past David Gower on the all-time England runs list. His helmet still looks too big for his head, though.
Root has been cheerfully and supremely confident at the crease since the first Test, and there can be something a little pacifying about these kind of calm, chanceless innings – the kind you appreciate with cultured smiles rather than whooped cries. Embuldeniya’s efforts could have done with a bit of crowd reaction, however; the whistled in-breath that might have come from his very first ball to Dan Lawrence, the cheers (and groans) that would have accompanied Dom Bess’s dismissal near the end of the day.
From 5,000 miles away, much of the day lacked the air of tension that it merited. Television doesn’t help: eerie drone shots that reinforce the sense of vacancy around the ground, and the long silences that accompany the action, rather leach any sense of drama. Radio has the edge in this regard; the practised modulations and vocal energy of its commentators manage to convey the action more viscerally, and keep some shape to the narrative.
Test Match Special has, of course, gone full Test Match Sofa, a little ironic given the kerfuffle the latter once created with its guerrilla commentary-from-the-couch. Simon Mann and co have been stripped of their press-box benefits and brought down to our level, forced to get up at 4am, Aggers in his dressing gown, Zaltzman freezing his little stats off in his shed.
Last summer they even had their cake privileges revoked because of Covid. On Sunday, we had Dan Norcross expounding on the joys of an early-morning sausage plait. Norcross was once Test Match Sofa’s maverick founder, but no one raises an eyebrow now at calling the game off the TV.
Cricket has an honourable tradition of long-distance commentary, after all – the 1938 Ashes were broadcast ball-by-ball in Australia using telegraphed score updates, with commentators imagining the shots, making up the field settings and dropping pencils on their desk to replicate the sound of bat on ball.
The TMS team does not, as far as we know, employ a foley artist, unless that background burble of ambient noise we hear is actually being created by Henry Moeran blowing into a cardboard tube. But they do provide other unexpected delights, such as the sound of Phil Tufnell experiencing a sunrise, or musing on tranquillity. “There’s something very transfixing about empty stadiums” he says. Well, we’re all on a learning curve.
The danger, as Alastair Cook has voiced, is that it’s all working a bit too well, and the BBC might go down the route of the ICC’s home umpire policy, and stop shipping them abroad altogether.