Sri Lanka 231 & 286-7& England 229: England left with outside chance as Sri Lankans fail to make hay

Another day of Test cricket, another indifferent batting display. Throughout this series England and Sri Lanka have taken it in turn to underachieve with the willow and yesterday, on the third day of the third Test here, it was the tourists who dithered when the initiative was there to be taken.

Yet despite the inability of any batsman to post a hundred, it is Sri Lanka who find themselves in a commanding position and with an excellent chance of levelling the three-Test series. Half-centuries from Kumar Sangakkara and Chamara Kapugedera guided Sri Lanka to 286 for 7 by the close a play, a total that gives them a lead of 288.

If England are to avoid suffering the ignominy of drawing a series they were expected to win comfortably, they will need to chase a record fourth-innings total at Trent Bridge. England's spin doctors will say it is possible, but history, and Muttiah Muralitharan, suggest differently.

England successfully chased 283 here against New Zealand in 2004, and the memory of that game will lead them to believe they have an outside chance of leaving Nottingham with an unexpected, and possibly undeserved, victory. But New Zealand were without their spinner Daniel Vettori in 2004 and how England fare today will depend on the way they handle Murali on a pitch sure to offer him plenty of assistance.

The match situation and England's current form were not the only worrying factors to emerge from yesterday's play.

The most alarming sight was that of Andrew Flintoff limping his way through the day. The stand-in England captain bowled only 10 overs after feeling discomfort in his left ankle. It is not the first time the joint has given Flintoff trouble. In January last year he returned home early from South Africa to have a bony spur removed from the ankle. The ailment forced him to miss the one-day series against South Africa, but he was back to full fitness in time to take on Bangladesh and Australia later in the summer.

The problem may disappear as quickly as it surfaced but England fans have every reason to worry when their talisman winces. Unlike some players, who enjoy the attention a niggle brings, Flintoff only limps when he is in pain, and by rationing his bowling he handed the duty of taking Sri Lankan wickets to the other members of England's attack.

Monty Panesar thrived on the responsibility while Matthew Hoggard, Liam Plunkett and Jon Lewis failed to make much of an impact. The sight of Panesar bowling with dexterity should be a cause for optimism because Ashley Giles' return to Test cricket is far from certain. England need a spinner who can take wickets and offer control - Panesar showed both qualities here when taking Test best figures of 3 for 73.

England's batsmen will have had mixed emotions while watching Panesar bowl. Their delight in his success will have been tempered by the fear of what Muralitharan might do today.

England's disappointing batting on Saturday, when they were bowled out for 229, allowed Sri Lanka back into the match. It also made the morning session a crucial one for Flintoff and his side. Quick wickets were needed if England were to force their way back into the game, yet it was Sri Lanka who dominated play, stretching their lead from 47 to 127.

Sangakkara set the tone when he cut Hoggard for four in the first over. The stroke brought an immediate response from Flintoff, who placed a fielder on the cover point boundary. Michael Vaughan made this tactic fashionable during last summer's Ashes when, against batsmen with big muscles and even bigger egos, it proved to be quite successful.

Yesterday, with the initiative there to be grabbed hold of, it could hardly be viewed as a positive move. It suggested even then that England were more worried about conceding runs than taking wickets.

The tactic does little to endorse the quality of a bowler. Test bowlers should possess the skill and control to bowl without someone loitering around the cover boundary. Modern cricketers will say the game has changed but in reality the captain is setting a field for bad bowling.

Against batsmen who were content to push the ball into a huge gap at cover and collect easy singles, the plan failed, and the scoreboard continued to tick along nicely for Sri Lanka.

Flintoff waited an hour before bowling himself, and the reason for the delay only became apparent when he ran in to bowl. On Friday Flintoff roared in from the Pavilion End and changed the course of the day by delivering a hostile and decisive spell. On several occasion he passed 90mph. But yesterday he looked in discomfort as he attempted to repeat the feat. Several deliveries whizzed down in the high eighties but the grimace that followed highlighted his problems.

It was only when Panesar was brought on that batting began to look taxing. Upul Tharanga hoisted the spinner over long-off for six but the shot led to the ball being changed and three balls later Panesar had Tharanga caught at short-leg.

Flintoff gritted his teeth to claim the wicket of Sangakkara, and Panesar removed Sanath Jayasuriya, but while Mahela Jayawardene was at the crease Sri Lanka were always destined to post a challenging target. When Plunkett accounted for Jayawardene the tourists were only 193 runs ahead and England would have harboured hopes of chasing around 250. The dismissal caused Jayawardene to knock his leg stump petulantly out of the ground. There was no malice in his reaction but it is sure to cost him money.

Tillekeratne Dilshan and Farveez Maharoof fell after the tea interval and England looked set to wrap the innings up quickly. But hopes of this faded as Kapugedera and Chaminda Vaas dug in. Kapugedera, a 19-year-old playing in his second Test, batted with maturity while scoring a maiden half-century, and Vaas, from an England perspective, continued to be a pain in the proverbial.

Scoreboard from Trent Bridge

Sri Lanka won toss; second and third days

Sri Lanka - First Innings 231.

England - First Innings

(Friday: 53 for 2)

A N Cook b Malinga 24

71 min, 54 balls, 1 four

K P Pietersen c Jayawardene b Muralitharan 41

109 min, 58 balls, 4 fours, 1 six

P D Collingwood lbw b Vaas 48

226 min, 184 balls, 1 six

*A Flintoff c Jayawardene b Jayasuriya 1

5 min, 5 balls

ÝG O Jones st Sangakkara b Muralitharan 19

53 min, 43 balls, 2 fours

L E Plunkett b Jayasuriya 9

72 min, 58 balls

M J Hoggard c Jayawardene b Muralitharan 10

71 min, 55 balls

J Lewis c Dilshan b Malinga 20

40 min, 29 balls, 4 fours

M S Panesar not out 0

3 min, 3 balls

Extras (b2 lb13 w3 nb8) 26

Total (378 min, 91.1 overs) 229

Fall: 1-25 (Strauss) 2-39 (Trescothick) 3-73 (Cook) 4-117 (Pietersen) 5-118 (Flintoff) 6-151 (Jones) 7-184 (Plunkett) 8-196 (Collingwood) 9-229 (Hoggard) 10-229 (Lewis).

Bowling: Vaas 26-5-71-2 (nb2 w2) (9-2-21-1, 5-0-17-0, 8-1-18-0, 4-2-15-1); Malinga 23.1-3-62-2 (nb5 w1) (5-0-21-0, 8-1-21-1, 4-1-4-0, 6.1-1-16-1); Muralitharan 31-10-62-3 (nb1) (4-0-8-0, 2-1-8-0, 23-9-44-2, 2-0-2-1); Jayasuriya 11-4-19-2 (4-2-4-1, 7-2-15-1).

Progress: First day: 50: 75 min, 16.3 overs. Close 53-2 (Cook 12, Pietersen 6) 18 overs. Second day: 100: 151 min, 31.5 overs. Lunch: 139-5 (Collingwood 15, Jones 14) 45 overs. 150: 226 min, 52 overs. Tea: 191-7 (Collingwood 48, Hoggard 3) 80 overs. New ball taken after 80.2 overs at 191-7. 200 in 352 min, 85.4 overs. Innings closed: 4.56pm Saturday.

Sri Lanka - Second Innings

(Overnight: 45 for 1)

M G Vandort b Hoggard 5

4 min, 5 balls, 1 four

W U Tharanga c Cook b Panesar 46

155 min, 115 balls, 6 fours, 1 six

ÝK C Sangakkara c Trescothick b Flintoff 66

197 min, 133 balls, 9 fours

*D P M D Jayawardene c Jones b Plunkett 45

118 min, 84 balls, 5 fours

S T Jayasuriya lbw b Panesar 4

6 min, 5 balls, 1 four

T M Dilshan c Jones b Hoggard 32

93 min, 60 balls, 3 fours

C K Kapugedera not out 50

156 min, 129 balls, 7 fours

M F Maharoof b Panesar 6

31 min, 29 balls

W P U C J Vaas not out 24

96 min, 67 balls, 3 fours

Extras (b1 lb3 nb4) 8

Total (for 7, 431 min, 104 overs) 286

Fall: 1-6 (Vandort) 2-100 (Tharanga) 3-143 (Sangakkara) 4-148 (Jayasuriya), 5-191 (Jayawardene), 6-223 (Dilshan) 7-238 (Maharoof).

To bat: S L Malinga, M Muralitharan.

Bowling: Hoggard 19-4-51-2 (5-1- 18-1, 6-3-10-0, 1-0-6-0, 3-0-8-1, 4-0-9-0); Lewis 20-6-54-0 (2-0-7-0, 1-0-6-0, 7-3-15-0, 6-2-16-0, 4-1-10-0); Flintoff 13-1-38-1 (nb2) (2-0-7-0, 1-0-5-0, 5-0-15-0, 4-1-10-1, 1-0-1-0); Panesar 36-13-73-3 (3-2-2-0, 6-4-16-1, 10-1-25-1, 10-2-26-1, 7-4-4-0); Plunkett 14-2-54-1 (nb2) (2-0-16-0, 3-0-18-1, 2-1-2-0, 7-1-18-0); Pietersen 2-0-12-0 (one spell).

Progress: Second day: clos e: 45-1 Tharanga 17, Sangakkara 22) 14 overs. Third day: 50: 68 min, 16.3 overs. 100: 154 min, 36.3 overs. Lunch: 125-2 (Sangakkara 56, Jayawardene 15) 42 overs. 150: 213 min, 49.3 overs. 200: 281 min, 65.2 overs. Tea: 219-5 (Dilshan 31, Kapugedera 16) 70 overs. New ball taken after 82 overs at 245-7. 250: 356 min, 84.4 overs.

Sangakkara's 50: 164 min, 108 balls, 7 fours. Kapugedera's 50: 146 min, 117 balls, 7 fours.

Umpires: D B Hair (Aus) and R E Koertzen (SA).

TV replay umpire: P J Hartley.

Match referee: A G Hurst.