England And Sri Lanka are beginning to resemble two weary middleweight boxers in this hard-fought three-Test series. After 11 days of uncompromising cricket, the home side are ahead on points, but neither team has yet been brave enough - or good enough - to finish off their opponents.
In Galle and Kandy, Sri Lanka had England exactly where they wanted them before throwing their advantage away. And until Muttiah Muralitharan bowled the last ball of the morning session to Marcus Trescothick here, it appeared as though their cautious approach would prove costly. England were 108 for 1 and the Somerset opener looked set to complete his sixth Test hundred.
It would be unfair to say the prospect of lunch distracted Trescothick, even though he has a healthy appetite, because there was little the left-hander could do about the fizzing off-break which took the edge of his bat.
It was this moment of brilliance that stirred a disinterested Sri Lanka into action. Within 14 overs of the restart they had removed all five of England's specialised batsmen for the cost of 139 runs. Once again the initiative was with the hosts and all that stood between England and embarrassment was Andrew Flintoff - with a Test batting average of 6.88 in Asia.
To begin with, the Lancashire all-rounder looked as though he would be dismissed at any time, but it is only because of his mature innings of 77 that England have the chance of posting a respectable total. On 259 for 8, Michael Vaughan's side are still 70 or 80 runs short of a par score, but at least they have a chance of defending this total after selecting a fifth bowler instead of Paul Collingwood.
The Durham batsman can consider himself unfortunate to miss out, but England were right to select Nasser Hussain for this series decider, even though he only scored eight yesterday. The inclusion of James Anderson caused the reshuffle, but the name of the Lancashire fast bowler was originally left off England's team-sheet. On seeing the error, members of the management of both teams rushed to see Clive Lloyd, the match referee, who sorted out the oversight.
It was Hussain's dismissal, to a ball that probably would have missed off-stump, which brought Flintoff to the crease. After surviving a couple of deliveries from Muralitharan, his close friend and nemesis, the 26-year-old got off the mark by smashing Chaminda Vaas for a straight four.
Flintoff's battle with Murali has been a highlight of the series even despite being a one-sided contest. To see a man capable of hitting the ball as far as Flintoff prod and poke at it as though it were a hand grenade shows that you do not have to be big and strong to intimidate an opponent.
The leg-spin of Upul Chandana was, however, in Flintoff's slot and the right-hander deposited him into the stands on three occasions. These were not the only blows to catch the eye. Vaas received similar treatment when a thunderous Flintoff straight drive sat the umpire, Aleem Dar, on his backside at the bowler's end. And then, two balls later, a vicious pull off the left-arm seamer flew over deep square-leg to bring up his fifty.
However, it would not have been these strokes which gave him the most pleasure. This came from two cut fours off Murali. Up until this moment Flintoff had given no indication that he could pick Murali's doosra - his ball that spins away from a right-hander - but after those boundaries one could see his confidence grow.
Murali failed to see the funny side but the runs hardly ruined his figures. Though he looked absolutely shattered walking off the field at the end of a scorching day, he still had the remarkable figures of 3 for 38 in 37 overs.
"After four low scores in the last two Test matches I was a bit nervous when I first went out to bat," Flintoff admitted. "I had tried to be aggressive over here, but I had to keep playing the way I play. I know I had got out to Murali three times before, but that happens against the best bowler in the world. I had to trust my method and trust the way I play. I tried not to change too many things but decided to scrap that little bit harder.
"It has been a decent day for us. It is not easy out there because the wicket is dry and the cracks are starting to break up a bit. If we can get to 300 we will hold a slight advantage because the wicket will only get drier and hopefully it may go up and down in the second innings."
Flintoff was given excellent support by Gareth Batty, even though the Worcestershire spinner only scored 14 in their 87-run partnership. But the runs dried up as soon as Batty pulled a long hop to midwicket - Marvan Atapattu injured his hand taking the catch - and Flintoff soon followed, brilliantly caught and bowled by Murali.
The only other partnership of note was that of England's openers. After winning his first toss of the series, Vaughan seemed determined to make it count while Trescothick went for his shots. His half-century came off 39 balls and contained 11 boundaries. Then Murali came on to bowl.
England won the toss
ENGLAND - First innings
M E Trescothick c Jayawardene b Muralitharan 70
118 min, 98 balls, 13 fours
*M P Vaughan c Jayawardene
b Chandana 18
76 min, 51 balls, 2 fours
M A Butcher c Sangakkara
b Fernando 23
49 min, 50 balls, 3 fours
N Hussain lbw b Vaas 8
50 min, 35 balls, 1 four
G P Thorpe lbw b Muralitharan 13
47 min, 39 balls, 1 four
A Flintoff c and b Muralitharan 77
137 min, 109 balls, 10 fours, 4 sixes
G J Batty c Atapattu b Chandana 14 97 min, 101 balls, 1 four
+C M W Read not out 13
82 min, 41 balls, 1 six
A F Giles run out 10
43 min, 39 balls, 1 four
R J Kirtley not out 1
7 min, 8 balls
Extras (b4, lb7, nb1) 12
Total (for 8, 95 overs, 358 min) 259
Fall: 1-78 (Vaughan), 2-108 (Trescothick), 3-114 (Butcher), 4-135 (Hussain), 5-139 (Thorpe), 6-226 (Batty), 7-236 (Flintoff), 8-258 (Giles).
To bat: J M Anderson.
Bowling: Vaas 14-4-61-1 (5-1-31-0, 4-1-8-1, 3-1-16-0, 2-1-6-0); Fernando 12-3-55-1 (3-0-27-0, 5-1-22-1, 3-1-6-0, 1-1-0-0); Samaraweera 4-1-11-0 (one spell); Chandana 26-7-82-2 (10-3-23-1, 9-3-31-0, 6-1-20-1, 1-0-8-0); Muralitharan 37-20-38-3 (22-11-29-2, 14-9-8-1, 1-0-1-0), Jayasuriya 2-1-1-0 (one spell).
Progress: First day: 50 in 36 min, 8.1 overs. 100 in 107 min, 28.5 overs. Lunch taken 108-2 (Butcher 18) 32 overs. 150 in 192 min, 50 overs. Tea taken 197-5 (Flintoff 42, Batty 13) 66 overs. 200 in 255 min, 70.1 overs. 250 in 337 min, 90.2 overs. New ball taken after 93 overs at 253 for 7.
Trescothick 50: 44 min, 39 balls, 11 fours. Flintoff 50: 87 min, 69 balls, 8 fours, 2 sixes.
SRI LANKA: M S Atapattu, S T Jayasuriya, ÝK C Sangakkara, D M P D Jayawardene, T M Dilshan, *H P Tillakaratne, T T Samaraweera, U D U Chandana, W P U J C Vaas, C R D Fernando, M Muralitharan.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and S A Bucknor (WI).
TV Replay Umpire: T H Wijewardene. Match Referee: C H Lloyd (W Indies).Reuse content