At 3.39pm Indian Standard Time yesterday the career of a substantial England captain might have drawn effectively to its end.
It was then that Andrew Strauss scooted down the pitch, made half-cocked contact with the ball and was caught at short mid-wicket.
In that moment, Strauss's batting life could have flashed before his eyes. He berated himself immediately, slapping a pad with his bat but self-flagellation was not about to restore his wicket. As he trooped off, it was possible to imagine the curtains coming gently across.
Strauss knew that with England in pursuit of 340 to win the first Test against Sri Lanka it must have looked a ridiculous shot against the world. It was meant to be assertive, to show that left-arm spinner Rangana Herath had to be overcome, it appeared panic stricken.
England were then left at 48 for 2, the other opener Alastair Cook having already perished, and it seemed easier to climb the walls of Galle Fort than reach their target. They finished the third day without further damage , still 229 runs short of victory.
No England side have made as many to win a match. This lot, who have achieved many peaks, insist that they want to make history and be recalled by generations yet to come as the best of the best. Making 340, monumental in any circumstances, and eight runs more than England made at Melbourne in 1929 to beat Australia by three wickets, would contribute significantly towards that aspiration.
But in Asia, England have never made more than 209 in the fourth innings to win. It would be hugely notable, it might be necessary to save Strauss's job. Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen withstood the rigours of the rest of the day and if it was sometimes perilous they refused to be subjugated. Trott survived a review of an lbw appeal, Pietersen, less securely, a chance at backward short leg which Kumar Sangakkara ought to have held.
They will have left dreaming big dreams but on all three days of the match, Sri Lanka have played the better cricket. The hosts were cannier than England again yesterday after resuming at 84 for 5 which made them vulnerable if not hapless. The addition of 87 runs by the last two wickets served the dual purpose of extending their lead to a point where England had to make the highest score of the match to win and keeping their opponents in the field in relentless heat for at least two hours more than they would have preferred.
It rather took the edge off Graeme Swann's return of 6 for 82 and for the second time in the match Jayawardene was a thorn in their side. This time it was Prasanna Jaywardene, namesake but no relation of the captain, Mahela, whose unbeaten 61 could hardly have been more calculating.
England have had few good days all winter and Strauss has had fewer. In some ways, it seems like an act of treason to suggest that it might all be coming to an end for him. He has done so much for English cricket, twice winning the Ashes and leading them to No 1 in the world. He has brought a dignity and composure to the role in 43 matches.
But how long ago the days of summer must seem for Strauss now. His problem is essentially two-fold. As captain he is ultimately responsible for the performances of the team and their elevated status as No 1 has looked increasingly artificial this year so far. A 3-0 defeat in the United Arab Emirates, when they exhibited woeful shortcomings against spin, has been followed by a similarly disastrous effort here. Of course, fourth-day atonement would count for a great deal, but anything less could conceal defects no longer.
But a captain cannot live by leadership alone. If he is a bowler he needs wickets and if he is a batsman he needs runs. As an opener the position carries greater responsibility because he can set the tone for the team.
Strauss was formidable at the start of his career, setting records galore, and four of his 19 hundreds have been in Ashes series. But the recent record does not lie and it is aggravated because so often he gets in and then is getting out. He has had 23 innings since his last Test hundred and in 14 of them he has made 19 or more, as he did again yesterday.
In the field his judgement is unaffected. He kept England on an even keel yesterday when Sri Lanka outstayed their welcome. At 127 for 8 it seemed England would be batting by lunch.
But Jayawaredene rotated the strike expertly and irritatingly. Two moments embodied England's day and match. Sri Lanka's innings should have ended when Jayawardene, on 29, mis-hooked Stuart Broad and was caught by the bowler off the top edge. England were already leaving the field when doubt invaded the umpire's mind and he decided to check for a no ball. Broad's front foot had indeed transgressed and the batsman was spared.
Another 32 had been added when Jayawardene slogged Swann to the mid-wicket boundary where Patel first seemed to have taken the catch but, realising he was close to the boundary rope threw the ball back into the field. The replay showed his foot was touching anyway and six runs were awarded.
Cook and Strauss began with some authority. But Cook was smartly caught behind by Jayawardene, edging Herath. Given not out, he did not walk and indeed looked as though butter would not melt in his mouth. Sri Lanka called for a review and were immediately vindicated. Cook had hit it all right.
Strauss was ticking along nicely enough, cutting and sweeping, until he made his dance down the pitch. It might have been a dash for the exit.
Timeline: How the third day unfolded
6.17am: Sri Lanka 114-6 Dinesh Chandimal 31
After a frustrating start to the day, Monty Panesar makes the breakthrough for England as Chandimal spoons a delivery straight to Kevin Pietersen at extra cover.
6.29am: Sri Lanka 115-6 Suraj Randiv 18
Not to be outdone by his partner in spin, Graeme Swann gets into the action with a wicket and this time Randiv is the victim – out plumb lbw, despite the hosts reviewing the umpire's decision.
6.46am: Sri Lanka 127-8 Rangana Herath 7
Swann clearly has the bit between his teeth and earns another wicket as Herath takes an aggressive swipe at a straight ball but misses and can only watch as the bails go flying.
8.32am: Sri Lanka 167-9 Chanaka Welegedara 13
After smacking Panesar for four, Welegedara gets a bit carried away and edges a wider ball to Strauss at gully – a tremendous catch taken by the England captain, diving low to his right.
8.41am: Sri Lanka 169-9 England are celebrating in the field as a Stuart Broad short ball is hooked high into the air and lands safely back in the bowler's hands. But the umpires call for a review and Broad is infuriated having overstepped by a few inches.
9.33am: Sri Lanka 214 all out Lakmal 13
After a frustrating spell for England the final wicket falls: sharp work in the field from Pietersen and Anderson, who swipes the ball backwards into the stumps, running out Lakmal.
10.38am: England 31-1 Cook 14
Alastair Cook feathers Rangana Herath behind and he is condemned on appeal.
11.09am: England 48-2 Strauss 27
The England captain skips down the pitch and plays an ugly swipe off Herath to Tillakaratne Dilshan at mid-wicket.
12.34am: England 111-2 Close of play
Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen see England through to stumps.
First Test (Third day of five): England, with eight second-innings wickets in hand, require 229 runs to beat Sri Lanka; Sri Lanka won toss
Sri Lanka: First Innings 318 (D P M D Jayawardene 180, Anderson 5-72)
England: First Innings 193 (Bell 52, Herath 6-74)
Sri Lanka: Second Innings Overnight 84-5
L D Chandimal c Pietersen b Panesar 31, 83 balls 5 fours
S Randiv lbw b Swann 18, 63 balls 2 fours
†H A P W Jayawardene not out 61, 123 balls 3 sixes 3 fours
H M R K B Herath b Swann 7, 10 balls 1 four
U W M B C A Welegedara c Strauss b Panesar 13, 53 balls 2 fours
R A S Lakmal run out 13, 29 balls 3 fours
Extras (b1 lb4 w1 nb4) 10
Total (84.3 overs) 214
Fall (cont): 6-114, 7-115, 8-127, 9-167.
Bowling J M Anderson: 10.3-2-26-0 (3-0-6-0; 2-0-12-0; 3-1-5-0; 2.3-1-3-0), S C J Broad: 11-2-33-1 (5-2-8-1; 1-0-1-0; 5-0-24-0), G P Swann: 30-5-82-6 (9-1-19-3; 18-4-49-3; 3-0-14-0), M S Panesar: 24-6-59-2 (7-1-19-0; 9-3-19-1; 4-1-15-1; 4-1-6-0), S R Patel: 9-4-9-0 (5-2-7-0; 4-2-2-0).
Progress Third Day: Sri Lanka 100 in 40.5 overs, 150 in 63.2 overs, Lunch: 151-8 in 66 overs (P Jayawardene 23, Welegedara 6), 200 in 78.3 overs. Innings Break: 214 in 84.3 overs (P Jayawardene 61). P Jayawardene: 50 off 91 balls (3 fours, 2 sixes).
England: Second Innings
*A J Strauss c Dilshan b Herath 27, 60 balls 2 fours
A N Cook c H A P W Jayawardene b Herath 14, 25 balls 3 fours
I J L Trott not out 40, 96 balls 5 fours
K P Pietersen not out 29, 59 balls 4 fours
Extras (lb1) 1
Total (for 2, 40 overs) 111
Fall 1-31, 2-48.
To bat I R Bell, †M J Prior, S R Patel, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, M S Panesar.
Bowling U W M B C A Welegedara: 5-2-16-0 (3-1-13-0; 2-1-3-0), R A S Lakmal: 3-1-9-0 (one spell), H M R K B Herath: 15-3-52-2 (14-3-51-2; 1-0-1-0), T M Dilshan: 9-1-14-0 (8-1-13-0; 1-0-1-0), S Randiv: 8-1-19-0 (5-1-10-0; 3-0-9-0).
Progress Third Day: Tea: England 27-0 in 7 overs (Strauss 14, Cook 13), 50 in 18.5 overs, 100 in 33.4 overs. Close: 111-2 in 40 overs (Trott 40, Pietersen 29).
Umpires Asad Rauf (Pakistan) & R J Tucker (Australia)
Third Umpire B N J Oxenford (Australia)
Match Referee J Srinath (India)
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- Alastair Cook
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- Monty Panesar
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- Stuart Broad