The test match between Sri Lanka and England begins the final day today with England in an undefeatable position. At the end of the fourth day they had a lead of 389 runs with two wickets remaining. It is all but certain that the England captain will declare their innings closed at the overnight score, leaving Sri Lanka with the target of 390 to win in just one day, which will consist of about 90 overs. (Each over consists of six deliveries so we are talking about 540 deliveries.)
This is a mammoth target for the final day of a five-day match. Typically, the pitch has deteriorated quite a bit from four days’ play and this helps the bowlers as the ball starts to bounce more erratically and also provide the spinners with more turn off the pitch. This makes batting more dicey. A target of about 4.3 runs per over on the last day is too much and I suspect that Sri Lanka will not even try. Only four teams in the history of the game have scored more than 390 runs in the last innings to win a game and none of them were done in a single day, since they all required at least 114 overs.
Tactically, it would have made sense for the England captain to close his innings before the end of the fourth day, giving his bowlers about half an hour at the Sri Lankans. The Sri Lankan batsmen would be tired from having fielded the whole day while England’s bowlers would be fresh from having sat in the stands the whole day. This would provide greater opportunities to capture their wickets and England may have been able to grab a couple to end the day on a high note. Of course this would have meant that the target they set would have been smaller, about 350 or so, but this would have had the benefit of tempting the Sri Lankan batsmen to chase the target and take risks to score runs faster and thus be more likely get out.
But with the current unrealistic target I expect the Sri Lankan batsmen use the last day as merely batting practice and try to run out the clock so that the game peters out to a boring no-decision, unless there is a collapse of their batting that enables England to grab a win.
Why didn’t the England captain declare earlier? It may have been due to an abundance of caution. Or he may have great confidence in his bowlers’ ability to get the Sri Lankan team out. Or it may have been out of a desire to give batsman Gary Balance a chance to score 100 runs, a personal landmark, which he did on the penultimate ball of the day. If it is the last reason, that would not be good. The goal of any team should be to try for a win and not allow personal goals to stand in the way.
Sri Lanka had their chances in the game. In both England innings, their bowlers achieved early dominance by dismissing their top batsmen cheaply but then the lower order England batsmen came to the rescue and piled up the score. It will now be up to the England bowlers to breakthrough the Sri Lankan batting.