Towards the end of a gruelling, thankless shift at work yesterday, England struck. A day which had seemed as if it was going nowhere, whose early excitement had dissipated until it was like being mauled by a dead sheep, and when all you want to do is get the 6pm tuk-tuk home for supper, was suddenly alive again.
Such is the beauty of Test cricket. For so long nothing seems to happen – and for so long on the fourth day of the second Test nothing did – and then it can be turned on its head in a trice.
The oldest dictum in the game for those who would opine on the state of play is to add two wickets to the score. Two wickets in the penultimate over of the day are exactly what did it for England. From the relative safety of 215 for 4, having not lost a wicket for 44 overs on an oppressive afternoon, Sri Lanka lost two in three balls and were 215 for 6.
It put them 33 ahead going into the final day. England departed knowing that a tricky pursuit could still await them if they are to win their first Test match of the winter.
Graeme Swann was the man who struck, his snaking, breaking off-spin, with the second new ball still hard, a rapier thrust to Sri Lanka's second innings. The sedate pace of proceedings after some earlier arousal of passion involving the decision review system had been in stark contrast to the previous day when Kevin Pietersen blazed his trail.
Sri Lanka were not so much blazing a trail as repelling a siege. Their mission was to occupy the crease and they fulfilled their obligation completely secure in the veteran hands of Mahela Jayawardene, yet again, and Thilan Samaraweera, who were quite content to chug along at two runs an over.
Just as it seemed their objective would be achieved, Swann was handed a ball which was only eight overs old and, despite a couple of near misses, the ball had thus far been as effective as that which England had used for the previous 80 overs. Swann had laboured with the rest of his colleagues but now he turned one sharply to Samaraweera, who jabbed it while backing to leg only for it to rebound on to his stumps. Two balls later, Swann produced a beauty to the nightwatchman, Suraj Randiv, which spun speedily through the gate to hit the stumps and England's garden was considerably rosier than the patch of infertile ground on which they had been operating.
All round, it was a peculiar day's play bookended by excitement. Feisty in the morning, there was a moment in the early afternoon when it looked as though all hell would break loose. Helmets were thrown, sledging was rampant, the referee's room was stormed, technology was lambasted.
The good old Umpire Decision Review System was at fault again. There was already a certain tension in the match. England, needing quick wickets, were not short of a word when the ball passed the bat or induced a false shot. The nightwatchman opener, Dhammika Prasad, got up their pipes at the start simply for doing his job by hanging around.
When he was eventually dispatched to be replaced by Tillekeratne Dilshan, following the early fall of Lahiru Thirimanne, it was hardly to improve diplomatic relations between the teams. Dilshan likes a verbal spat and was having a high old time.
Early in the afternoon session, he was given out off the bowling of Swann, caught at slip by Jimmy Anderson. He immediately asked for the decision to be reviewed. The umpire, Bruce Oxenford, must have seen either a thin edge on to pad or felt that the ball had feathered the back of the bat as it looped off the pad towards slip.
Nothing in the replays confirmed that the ball had hit Dilshan's bat. Equally nothing concluded that it had not. After what seemed like the longest review in history – the ICC has not released a compendious list – the decision was upheld.
Dilshan at first stood his ground in disbelief and then began to walk slowly to the dressing room. Before he reached there he made his feelings clear by hurling his helmet to the turf beyond the boundary rope. Dilshan had already been fined 10 per cent of his match fee for excessive appealing and will now be in danger of losing the rest of it.
Switch-hitting one day, DRS the next, and the ICC copping the flak. It is fascinating that it says on its website that DRS has to be used in all matches when it doesn't, and yet there is no mention of switch hitting which is apparently part of a directive.
Nor was that the only interruption to the over. Before it was done, England reviewed an lbw decision against Kumar Sangakkara. Given not out, he was spared by a coat of varnish on the predictive replay. It seemed then that it might be Sangakkara's day. But 10 overs later he pushed forward to a turner from Swann and was caught by Matt Prior.
England had already been guilty of two lapses in the field. Prior had missed an early stumping and Steve Finn put down a catch at mid-off. But their most significant oversight came when Jayawardene, on 20, came down the wicket to Samit Patel and drove him to deep mid-on.
It was a tantalising chance as it hung in the air. Tim Bresnan moved back and stuck up his right hand. The ball bounced out. Jayawardene did not make the mistake again; he did not make any mistake again.
He and Samaraweera were relentless in simply keeping England at bay and, at 1-0 up in the series, they knew they had to do nothing else. They probably also recognised it was their best chance of winning the match.
They nudged and nurdled and defended teasingly. Nary a ball deviated, and then Swann glided in.
Facts in figures
94.33 The mighty Mahela Jayawardene's Test average at home against England
28.15 Graeme Swann now has 180 Test wickets – at this superb average
2 Sri Lanka are hoping to end a two-year wait to win a Test series
33 Sri Lanka's slender lead going into the final day
41 Jayawardene now has 41 Test half-centuries – to go with his 31 tons
10 Dilshan has so far been docked 10 per cent of his match fee – it could soon be even more...
Timeline: How fourth day unfolded
6.03am (UK time) Sri Lanka 23-1
England make the breakthrough with a wicket from James Anderson. He swings the ball away from the left-hander Lahiru Thirimanne, who edges it to Andrew Strauss at slip.
6.54am Sri Lanka 64-2
Just as it seems that Sri Lanka are getting comfortable, England have another wicket. Dhammika Prasad sends a short ball from Steven Finn flying on the pull to Tim Bresnan for a comfortable catch.
8.48am Sri Lanka 104-3
Another gutsy period from Sri Lanka is frustrating England in the heat. But after a lengthy review, Tillekeratne Dilshan is sent back to the pavilion, caught by Anderson off the bowling of Graeme Swann.
9.34am Sri Lanka 125-4
It's a battle out there in the searing Sri Lankan heat, but England take another casualty – Kumar Sangakkara is gone, having edged a turning Swann delivery into Matt Prior's gloves.
11.49am Sri Lanka 199-4
Sri Lanka are relying on their rock, Mahela Jayawardene, to keep them in this game – and the home side's captain is certainly going about his business, achieving his half-century with a dab to third man.
12.40pm Sri Lanka 215-5
Just as England's hopes of retaining their No 1 Test status appear to be dimming, Swann steps up once again, forcing Thilan Samaraweera to chop the ball into his stumps.
12.44pm Sri Lanka 215-6
Incredible scenes of English jubilation on the field as a stunning, spinning delivery from Swann turns between bat and pad before sending Suraj Randiv's bails flying.
Peter BlackburnReuse content