For a few intoxicating moments yesterday England had Sri Lanka on the run. Jimmy Anderson was in his glorious pomp, taking prestidigitation to levels undreamt of by mere conjurors.
Wickets tumbled, three of them in a row, the ball was doing a bit, the pitch was threatening to do a bit more. The Colombo crowd, almost all of them supporting England, were going wild. And then along came Mahela Jayawardene to dig his team serenely out of a hole.
It defies the laws of science that a man can stay this cool in this heat for so long. Cucumbers are balls of sweat by comparison. Jayawardene ensured that he survived Anderson's compelling spell and then settled down to bat for the day and bat England out of the second Test.
He did not quite achieve either objective. With the first day drawing to a sweltering close and with the second new ball on its way, Jayawardene fell shortly after completing his 31st Test century. Graeme Swann, coming round the wicket, found one that gripped and turned into the batsman's pad. It took a long time for umpire Asad Rauf to raise his finger and a longer time for the subsequent review to confirm – but it was out all right.
The day was turned round again and neatly bookended: all England in the first hour, all Sri Lanka and Mahela in the middle, all England in the last hour. It has the makings of another rip-roaring Test match at the ground where England won the inaugural one in this country 30 years ago but, with their opponents on 238 for 6, England left knowing they would not want to be hanging round in the field for long on the morrow. To suggest that Jayawardene accumulated runs gradually in building another supreme Test innings, to follow the 180 which effectively saw off England at Galle last week, is to discredit what he does. Of course, he accumulated but it was done with a style and grace of exotic quality.
He is a touch player and in this form, sublimely regained after a lean run last year, a formidable one. It was almost coincidental that he should have scored the two millionth Test run of all time on the way but it was fitting that such a graceful and gracious player should score it.
This century completed a matching pair in this series: last week he took 200 balls with 12 fours and two sixes to reach his hundred, yesterday it was 195 balls with 11 fours and one six. He was not quite flawless. Early on he pushed in the air past short leg and on 79, with Anderson producing another magnificent spell after tea, he edged a ball in the air between wicketkeeper and Andrew Strauss at slip. It was a hard chance but it was unmistakably a chance and with Jayawardene in this sort of order it needed to be taken.
These minor blemishes apart, Jayawardene's tempo was a thing of beauty. He was helped in the reconstruction necessary from the mess of 30 for 3 (following 15 for 3 and 14 for 3 in Galle, where they still won) by Thilan Samaraweera, a fellow veteran who has seen it all and done most of it.
After Anderson was withdrawn from the attack having bowled seven overs, England were a different proposition. Not toothless exactly but not slavering with venom either. It had begun to look as though the fourth-wicket pair would bat all day when Tim Bresnan dismissed Samaraweera with a smart piece of bowling of which Anderson would have been proud.
Experienced or not, Samaraweera had been discomfited by a series of short balls. England thought they had him snaffled at short leg on 36 but their review could not quite discern that it had brushed his glove on the way to the thigh pad, leading Andy Flower, the tourists' coach, to seek clarification on how the decision was reached. To which the match referee, Javagal Srinath, might have asked if anybody really knows how these decisions are reached.
Samaraweera might have been anticipating something similar when Bresnan slanted a much fuller ball across him and through the defences. Much needed though it was at the time, it seemed not to be enough.
It had turned into a day of hard toil for England from those heady beginnings, which are these days pretty common currency. In the last 16 matches they have played, starting with Adelaide in late 2010, they have 12 times taken the first three of their opponents' wickets with 40 runs or fewer on the board. True, they have not gone on to win on each occasion (won five, lost four) but it says much for a potent new-ball attack.
Anderson is the acme of that. He was splendid yesterday after Strauss lost what was decreed an important toss. Aren't they all to a greater or lesser degree? But in the last six Tests at this ground the team batting first has gone on to lose, so perhaps Strauss ought not to have been disappointed. Tillekaratne Dilshan had already flirted with peril as is his wont when Anderson produced a ball which he had to play on off-stump and was caught by a pouncing Matt Prior. Kumar Sangakkara was similarly compelled to play at his first ball which moved away a fraction. Strauss flunked the chance but rescued the situation with a reflex one-handed grab. It looked wonderful and made it worse for Sangakkara, his second first-ball dismissal of the series.
Four overs later, Anderson had his third when Lahiru Thirimanne made the fatal error of shouldering arms to a ball which swung in at him. He reviewed the verdict but any other decision but the one confirmed would have been a disservice to a beautiful piece of bowling.
Anderson moved it this way and that, his length spot on and only when tiredness and the effects of the searing heat meant his temporary removal from the England attack could Sri Lanka move on. They did, but their progress was not conclusive.
Timeline: How the first day unfolded
5.02am (UK time): Sri Lanka win the toss and bat
Andrew Strauss calls incorrectly for the fifth time on the trot and it looks like it will be hard work for the bowlers. Bresnan and Finn replace Broad and Panesar.
5.50am: Sri Lanka 21-1
Scrap that statement about hard toil for the seamers. The irrepressible James Anderson has the ball bending round corners and induces Dilshan to nick one behind to wicketkeeper Matt Prior.
5.54am: Sri Lanka 21-2
England in dreamland. Anderson can scarcely believe it as he picks up Kumar Sangakkara for a golden duck for the second time this series – Strauss finally clings on to a juggling attempt at first slip.
6.14am: Sri Lanka 30-3
First the good news. Anderson picks up his third as Thirimanne shoulders arms and is palpably lbw. Now the bad news. Mahela Jayawardene is in and already looking like the proverbial immovable object.
9.28am: Sri Lanka 130-3
A hundred partnership between Mahela and Samaraweera, though England are furious not to pick up the latter – the third umpire (on review) rules that he did not get bat on a catch to Cook at short leg.
11.43am: Sri Lanka 202-4
After Bresnan had prised out Samaraweera – gaining a deserved lbw decision – Jayawardene cruises serenely to his second ton of the series – but will this one also be a matchwinner?
1pm: Sri Lanka 238-6
Possibly not. Swann finally gets some luck and earns an lbw verdict to get rid of the danger man. Finn then snares the Sri Lankan keeper, and England just about edge day one – but they still have to bat....
Facts in figures
257 Test wickets now taken by James Anderson – only four Englishmen (Ian Botham, Bob Willis, Fred Trueman and Derek Underwood) have taken more.
10 Tests (out of 10) won by England when Tim Bresnan has been in the side.
2m All-time Test runs scored when Jayawardene hit a four yesterday.
12 Times in 15 Tests that England have taken first 3 wkts for 40 or under.
3 England will be third in the world rankings if they lose this Test and Australia beat West Indies 3-0.
Second Test, P Sara Oval (First day of five): Sri Lanka have scored 238 for 6 wickets against England; Sri Lanka won toss
Sri Lanka: First Innings
H D R L Thirimanne lbw b Anderson 8, 26 balls 0 sixes 1 fours
T M Dilshan c Prior b Anderson 14, 16 balls 0 sixes 3 fours
K C Sangakkara c Strauss b Anderson 0, 1 balls 0 sixes 0 fours
*D P M D Jayawardene lbw b Swann 105, 216 balls 1 sixes 11 fours
T T Samaraweera lbw b Bresnan 54, 129 balls 0 sixes 5 fours
A D Mathews not out 41, 120 balls 0 sixes 4 fours
†H A P W Jayawardene c Prior b Finn 7, 19 balls 0 sixes 1 fours
S Randiv not out 5, 13 balls 0 sixes 1 fours
Extras (b4) 4
Total (for 6, 90 overs) 238
Fall 1-21, 2-21, 3-30, 4-154, 5-216, 6-227.
To bat H M R K B Herath, R A S Lakmal, K T G D Prasad.
Bowler JM Anderson: 17-2-52-3 (7-1-29-3; 4-0-9-0; 4-1-11-0; 2-0-3-0), ST Finn: 18-3-43-1 (5-1-18-0; 3-0-5-0; 4-1-10-0; 2-1-1-0; 4-0-9-1), TT Bresnan: 15-2-32-1 (5-0-11-0; 3-1-9-0; 2-0-2-1; 3-1-4-0; 2-0-6-0), SR Patel: 16-3-32-0 (4-0-6-0; 8-2-17-0; 4-1-9-0), GP Swann: 22-2-71-1 (8-1-25-0; 10-1-39-0; 3-0-6-1; 1-0-1-0), KP Pietersen: 2-0-4-0 (2-0-4-0).
Progress Sri Lanka 50 in 12.3 overs, Lunch: 82-3 in 27 overs (DPMD Jayawardene 40, Samaraweera 20), 100 in 34.6 overs, Jayawardene 50 off 109 balls (7 fours), Samaraweera 50 off 125 balls (5 fours), 150 in 51.4 overs. Tea: 155-4 in 55 overs (Jayawardene 74, Mathews 1), 200 in 70.3 overs, Jayawardene 100 off 195 balls (11 fours, 1 six). Close: 238-6 in 90 overs (Mathews 41, Randiv 5).
England *A J Strauss, A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, †M J Prior, S R Patel, T T Bresnan, G P Swann, S T Finn, J M Anderson.
Umpires Asad Rauf (Pak) & BNJ Oxenford (Aus).
Third umpire RJ Tucker (Aus).
Match referee J Srinath (Ind).