Informed opinion in the morning was that England could end the affair quickly and prepare for higher matters involving India. This overlooked the small points that they barely remember how to win and that Sri Lanka are nobody’s patsies.
What might have been a straightforward day when wickets tumbled before uneven bounce and disconcerting swing was instead an arduous struggle on an increasingly placid surface. A position early on the third day of the second Test when it seemed there might be a wicket every other ball, and sometimes more frequently than that, transmogrified into one where it seemed a wicket was not certain to fall again.
The tourists were simply refusing to fold to order. Their eminent old warriors, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene were leading them to a position where the outcome of the series would be far from certain. A deficit of 108 had become a surplus of 64. And then arrived the breach for which England had waited. It came from the most improbable quarter.
Moeen Ali, their part-time spinner thrust into the frontline role, took two wickets in three balls. It was high drama. The ball turned, which in turn turned the match and the series England’s way again. He removed Sangakkara with a straight one, the line of which the batsman misjudged, and then bowled the hapless Lahiru Thirimanne with a ball that turned past the outside edge.
But winning has become so alien in the last six months, and something which many of this young home side have never experienced in a Test match, that nothing can be certain. England would never have wished to be chasing more than 200 and that target might well have been revised downwards to around 150.
By the close, Sri Lanka were 214 for 4, 106 runs to the good and Jaywardene was still there on a craftsman’s 55, along with Angelo Mathews who batted like a man who has an average as captain in Test matches of 76. Wickets were steadfastly refusing to fall again.
How daft the prognosis of many old England hands had come to look. Yet it was based on the sound evidence that the ball was darting about off a length and that England had lost their last eight wickets for 87 –their last four for 45 in 71 balls in the first hour of the third morning.
Only Matt Prior’s late belligerence ensured the lead was into three figures. But nobody was able to stay with him as Shaminda Eranga and Mathews profited from pitching the ball up and befuddled the England tail.
If this continued it was clear that Sri Lanka would also lose wickets to an attack of four fast bowlers who were all more potent. But England oddly chose the wrong option. They banged it into the pitch rather than bowl at a fuller length. Their plan was to disrupt the Sri Lanka openers with a few howitzers at their heads but on this occasion a fuller length and a potentially swinging ball would have been more sensible. It seemed to be a case of sticking to a pre-ordained plan and not embracing the wisdom of the moment.
It would have also helped if they had seized their chances. England’s catching has been indifferent for a year or so, and this series has seen no improvement. When Dimuth Karunaratne was on four, Jimmy Anderson induced an edge which flew at a comfortable height slightly below the chest to second slip where Chris Jordan made a pig’s ear of it. This was at odds with the spectacular catch that Jordan took in the first innings but it was also England’s fifth drop of the match.
It meant that the opening pair were again able to give their team a start which avoided the need for panic. The breakthrough came from Liam Plunkett, who immediately introduced more energy into England’s business.
It would be impossible to have a bowling attack consisting entirely of Plunketts, running in and letting it go, but he adds a dimension which will always give opponents pause to doubt. He removed Kaushal Silva with a rapid full length ball which took the edge as the batsman groped forward and greeted Sangakkara with a vicious lifter which the batsman did not control.
Plunkett despatched Karunaratne too with a lifter from round the wicket which was gloved to Prior, who has now overtaken Alec Stewart as England’s second most prolific wicketkeeper. Only Alan Knott now has more dismissals.
That seemed to be about that for England as the afternoon turned to evening. Sangakkara was serene, Jayawardene lacked his usual touch as he has all tour but was not about to go anywhere. Sangakkara played a few handsome cover drives, Jayawardene dug in. They put on fifty together for the third wicket for the 40th time in Test matches.
England were running out of ideas and with their captain, Alastair Cook, for a brief while at least parked on the square leg boundary, well away from the action, it was possible to wonder where they might be coming from. Cook is under enough close enough inspection without making such naive lapses.
He shuffled his four fast men without much sign of anything happening. Sri Lanka were comfortable, England distinctively less so. The lack of a spin bowler worthy of the name was rapidly becoming a significant factor. Moeen had been allowed one over until Cook, probably because he had nowhere else to go, threw him the ball for the 56th over.
There were a few rough patches for him to work with, the rest was up to him. The ball which ensnared Sangakkara was innocuous as the batsman’s reaction confirmed when his review of the lbw verdict failed. Balls which do not turn can sometimes do the trick. Thirimanne was on a king pair, which he avoided by one ball.
If it was any consolation the ball which did for him was a classic, drifting and then spinning away. It was all England had to settle for as their opponents played out the day in comfort.