Still there was no hundred, still the long-term doubts will persist. Andrew Strauss made 61 yesterday as England began to grind down Sri Lanka in the second Test and finish the winter on a much-needed high after a sequence of lows which would only satisfy a limbo dancer.
But for Strauss this solid, gritty innings was, as was said of the New Zealand medium-pacer Bob Cunis, neither one thing nor the other. What it patently did not amount to was a century which, make no mistake, everyone in the England dressing room and most points outside it were willing him to score.
England finished the second day on 154 for 1, Strauss crucially being the one, a deficit of 121 but in a position of impressive strength. It was the tourists' best day of the winter, which might not be saying much but demonstrated that they had not been battered into submission by previous events.
Strauss tried, how he tried, in an opening partnership of 122 with Alastair Cook, their 12th of three figures during their long alliance. The hard work was done, the ball was soft and old, Sri Lanka were wilting, wicketless and 51 overs into the England innings.
England's captain had played with a shrewd determination. In the parlance, it was a silence-the-knockers type of performance, and the knockers, if that is what they were, were willing to be silenced. He left the ball well at the start of England's innings when they began their response to Sri Lanka's 275 all out just before lunch. He played the percentages throughout.
The sweep which had caused England so many difficulties in Galle last week, and a few more in the UAE before that, was swept away almost entirely. Strauss, and indeed Cook, clipped off his legs and punched through the covers. It was a risk-free affair.
It began to seem as though he and Cook, having laid a perfect foundation, would see out the second day. In their desperation for a wicket, Sri Lankan turned to the occasional spin of Tillakaratne Dilshan.
It should be empahsised that Dilshan is not a complete duffer. Among his 29 Test wickets are Sachin Tendulkar (twice), Younis Khan and Mike Hussey. Strauss might have seen the warning signs when he edged the first ball of an over, a looping off-break on the ground, to slip. But two balls later he tried to cut a quicker one, edged it and was smartly taken by Prasanna Jayawardene.
Strauss has now made one hundred in his last 49 Test innings and this was the 12th time he had failed to convert a fifty in that time. He craved a hundred all right because that is what batsmen live for. But this innings, his highest since August, will categorically ensure that he stays in charge at the start of the English summer, not least because it has set them up with a splendid opportunity to win their first Test match of the winter.
Starts are exactly what England have lacked since leaving their own shores for the first time in January. In eight first-wicket partnerships, Strauss and Cook had never made more than 48 until yesterday and they had never looked like making more than 48.
Cook set out his stall every bit as studiously as Strauss and was even less assertive. The captain reached his fifty in 105 balls, the vice-captain took 164. They had only eight boundaries between them, since boundaries are not what they sought. Cook was still there at the end, on 77, and by then had booked in for bed and breakfast.
The morning, like the rest of the day, belonged to the tourists. It took them 45 minutes to break through but in that time Sri Lanka were going nowhere. Once the first wicket of the day, the seventh of the innings, had fallen they all obliged as any self-respecting tail would have done 50 years ago.
In taking three of the last four wickets, four in the innings, Graeme Swann went past Tony Lock to be the third-highest wicket-taker among England spinners. Ahead of Swann's 176 are Jim Laker, his fellow off-spinner, on 193 and Derek Underwood on 297.
Underwood, who played the last of his 87 Tests on the ground 30 years ago, was in the crowd to watch the performance. At present rate of progress, his record should endure until the summer of 2014 if Swann can keep going until then, and the last two Test matches have been a declaration of intent.
Swann had Suraj Randiv caught at long-on, a conventional off-spinner's dismissal, though it needed Kevin Pietersen's telescopic arms to complete. He then brought an end to Angelo Mathews' mishmash of an innings – he could have been out at any time when being worked over by Jimmy Anderson on the first afternoon but stuck at it – when the batsman clipped limply to short midwicket.
Tim Bresnan intervened to have Rangana Herath caught behind swishing before Swann finished off the innings with another consummate piece of work from the off-break manual, turning one through the hapless Saranga Lakmal's gate. It was a delightful moment and a delivery almost wasted on the batsman.
Four wickets had gone for 37 and it was to get no better for Sri Lanka. England had remembered in the nick of time that it could not and should not get any worse.
Timeline: How the second day unfolded
6.27am (UK time): Sri Lanka 258-7
Graeme Swann makes the first breakthrough of the day as Suraj Randiv refuses to be tied down by the spinner – a heave to mid-on is caught well by Kevin Pietersen.
6.35am: Sri Lanka 261-8
Swann produces wild celebrations in the field with a second wicket in two overs as Angelo Mathews moves down the wicket aggressively, but only clips the ball tamely to Strauss who takes the catch comfortably.
6.53am: Sri Lanka 270-9
Tim Bresnan finally gets his man as Rangana Herath attempts a wild slog into the leg side but only succeeds in limply sending the ball into the safe hands of the England wicketkeeper, Matt Prior.
7.04am: Sri Lanka 275 all out
England's chances of winning this game receive a major boost as Swann takes the final Sri Lankan wicket – fooling Suranga Lakmal and bowling him as he attempted to play a defensive shot.
11.01am: England 95-0
Relief for the England camp and particularly their captain, as the under-pressure Andrew Strauss secures his fifty with a single – a conservative but fine knock with England's No 1 status on the line.
11.12am: England 110-0
Just minutes after Strauss brings up his half-century, Alastair Cook gets involved in the action, cutting beautifully for four to bring up his fifty – the England openers creating a solid batting platform.
11.30am: England 122-1
A poor cut from Strauss is edged to Sri Lankan keeper, Prasanna Jayawardene, who takes a good catch as the ball deviated a long way. The captain departs for 61.
Fact in figures
77* Cook's total was more than his previous five innings combined.
4,417 Total amount of Test runs in the partnership of Cook and Strauss, only three opening partnerships have more.
30 Strauss was Tillakaratne Dilshan's 30th Test wicket.
37 Runs scored by Sri Lanka from 21 overs for their last four wickets.
Second Test (Second day of five): England are trailing Sri Lanka by 121 runs with nine first-innings wickets in hand; Sri Lanka won toss
Sri Lanka: First Innings Overnight 238 for 6 (D P M D Jayawardene 105, Samaraweera 54)
A D Mathews c Strauss b Swann 57, 157 balls 6 fours
S Randiv c Pietersen b Swann 12, 52 balls 1 fours
K T G D Prasad not out 12, 30 balls 2 fours
H M R K B Herath c Prior b Bresnan 2, 19 balls 0 fours
R A S Lakmal b Swann 0, 2 balls 0 fours
Extras (b4) 4
Total (111.1 overs) 275
Fall (cont) 7-258, 8-261, 9-270.
Bowling JM Anderson: 22-5-62-3 (7-1-29-3; 4-0-9-0; 4-1-11-0; 2-0-3-0; 5-3-10-0), ST Finn: 22-4-51-1 (5-1-18-0; 3-0-5-0; 4-1-10-0; 2-1-1-0; 4-0-9-1; 4-1-8-0), TT Bresnan: 21-3-47-2 (5-0-11-0; 3-1-9-0; 2-0-2-1; 3-1-4-0; 2-0-6-0; 6-1-15-1), SR Patel: 16-3-32-0 (4-0-6-0; 8-2-17-0; 4-1-9-0), GP Swann: 28.1-4-75-4 (8-1-25-0; 10-1-39-0; 3-0-6-1; 1-0-1-0; 6.1-2-4-3), KP Pietersen: 2-0-4-0 (2-0-4-0).
Progress Day two: 250 in 96.4 overs, Mathews 50 off 142 balls (6 fours), Sri Lanka 275 all out in 111.1 overs. Lunch: 11-0 in 4 overs (Strauss 4, Cook 7), 50 in 20.4 overs. Tea: 83-0 in 36 overs (Strauss 42, Cook 27), Strauss 50 off 105 balls (3 fours), 100 in 44.3 overs, 150 in 61.4 overs. Close: 154-1 in 66 overs (Cook 77, Trott 15), Cook 50 off 164 balls (5 fours).
England: First Innings
*A J Strauss c H A P W Jayawardene b Dilshan 61, 126 balls 4 fours
A N Cook not out 77, 227 balls 7 fours
I J L Trott not out 15, 44 balls 1 fours
Extras (nb1) 1
Total (for 1, 66 overs) 154
To bat K P Pietersen, I R Bell, †M J Prior, S R Patel, T T Bresnan, G P Swann, S T Finn, J M Anderson.
Bowling RAS Lakmal: 13-3-34-0 (1nb) (4-0-17-0; 7-2-13-0; 2-1-4-0), KTGD Prasad: 9-4-24-0 (6-3-13-0; 3-1-11-0), HMRKB Herath: 19-2-46-0 (12-0-33-0; 3-0-9-0; 3-1-4-0; 1-1-0-0), TM Dilshan: 8-1-16-1 (3-1-3-0; 5-0-13-1), S Randiv: 17-4-34-0 (4-1-3-0; 6-1-13-0; 7-2-18-0).
Umpires Asad Rauf (Pak) & B N J Oxenford (Aus).
Third umpire R J Tucker (Aus).
Match referee J Srinath (Ind).
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