The defiance was belated but magnificent. Yet with the match in its last breath, after a long day of resolve marshalled by a vintage innings from Moeen Ali that combined restraint and elegance, England succumbed to Sri Lanka.
There was only one ball left of the second Test when Jimmy Anderson fended a bouncer from Shaminda Eranga in the air to leg gully. The tourists had won by 100 runs. The last-wicket pair had repelled the tourists for 121 balls at the end of a final day when England had shown abundant reserves of purpose and resolve.
Perhaps Sri Lanka deserved this victory in the match and the series because they had shown such perseverance themselves in overturning a first-innings deficit of 108. But it was desperately disappointing for England, who must have thought that they had done enough to manage one of the greatest escapes.
Nobody more deserved to walk off the ground with a draw than Moeen, whose rearguard action in scoring 108 not out was a model of its kind. It will take its place in the realm of noble acts of resistance and merited the reward it did not quite obtain. He was calm and unruffled over six and a half hour and 281 balls. The only thing that might have flapped all day was his beard.
England began proceedings at 57 for 5 without, it seemed, the remotest chance of escaping the ignominy of their first home Test series defeat to Sri Lanka. But they seized the opportunity to show that they are made of sterner stuff than it had appeared as they were allowing this Test to be stolen from their clutches after they had dominated its early stages.
Sri Lanka might rue a pitch that did not wear as it might have done but England’s purposefulness in the face of adversity was admirable. The match turned ugly in the afternoon when Sri Lanka’s strident sledging brought censure from the umpires. They were particularly bellicose in the direction of Joe Root, who responded with an angelic smile but must have rubbed the tourists up the wrong way somewhere along the line. Moeen stood serenely aloof from it all as if he were doing some important research in a library.
That it all came down to the last over was largely due to him. But Moeen could not have done it without his partners, especially Anderson. When the ninth wicket fell after England had made a decent show of refusing to buckle, it seemed that they must lose. But when the last over arrived it seemed they must save match and series.
Anderson negotiated the first four balls with the studious grit and determination he had shown since arriving at the crease 80 minutes earlier. But the fifth ball of the over from Eranga was a well-directed bouncer aimed at the throat, the most effective of its kind. Anderson instinctively raised his bat and turned his back. The ball looped to Rangana Herath about five yards from the bat.
Anderson could hardly grasp what had happened. He slumped to his knees while the Sri Lankans cavorted in a group. Moeen came down, for all the world as if he had played 102 Test matches rather than two, and consoled Anderson.
He had faced the first ball of day and if he had somehow managed to contrive to face the last England might have survived. But how England fought, how Sri Lanka had to strive for what had seemed a formality.
Root kept Moeen company throughout the morning. Lunch was taken because of a heavy rain shower which did not reduce the number of overs available. The breakthrough came in the 30th over of the day when Root was squared up by a ball from Nuwan Pradeep that straightened late and went low to gully.
Moeen merely dug in again, leaving outside off. His only false shot had come early in the piece when he flirted dangerously outside the off stump. After that he constantly left well alone. Sri Lanka gave up trying to ruffle him. He was not listening.
There was controversy when Matt Prior was given out caught at short leg unable to deal with a bouncer. It might have been a no-ball – replays were inconclusive and the benefit of the doubt went to the bowler. If Prior was understandably furious, it was probably the right decision.
Chris Jordan lived precariously at times but just when it seemed he was settled he was undone by the wiles of Herath. The point in the day had come when Herath, Sri Lanka’s spinner, needed a wicket. Soon he had another when Stuart Broad was also lbw propping forward.
That seemed to be that. Even when bad light forced Sri Lanka to bowl spin from both ends or risk play being suspended, there seemed no way for England to escape their predicament. No side had ever gone into the last day of a Test match five wickets down and avoided defeat.
But the overs went by. Anderson was stoic, Moeen declined to panic. He took one end, Anderson took the other and when pace came back from one end he took that too. On his way to an epic maiden hundred Moeen declined any number of singles but at last he nudged a leg-side off his hips which went for four.
There can have been few more determinedly elegant pieces of resistance of any kind. But this was so early in his international career that it almost defied the imagination. Sri Lanka grew increasingly worried. They were willing to try anything. Orchestrated largely by Mahela Jayawardene in the field, Angelo Mathews seemed the captain in name only. But Mathews must have made the call to replace Herath’s spin for the final over.
They packed the leg-side field. It was obvious that Anderson would have to repel short stuff. He played straight and carefully. But then came the ball with his name on it. And there was nothing he or England could do.
Highlights of the day
The four Moeen Ali clipped off his hips to bring up his valiant century was deserved for his patience alone.
Debate will continue to rage about whether the delivery which accounted for Matt Prior was a no-ball. The doubt rightly went to the bowler Dhammika Prasad and overlooks what a clever piece of work it was.
The penultimate ball of the day and the match. England seemed to be there but a bumper from Shaminda Eranga was mercilessly directed. Jimmy Anderson could only send it to gully. The series was Sri Lanka’s.