What began as a red-hot day that might decide the series ended in a blue sea of plastic covers, torrential rain and a Test match that sits on a knife edge. At different times throughout Saturday England seemed to have both secured a memorable and historic series victory on the sub-continent and then, a wicketless hour or so later, thrown it away.
With the background of such uncertainty, perhaps it is only fitting that we head into the final day of this second Test none the wiser as to who might emerge victorious.
Starting early to make up for Friday afternoon’s rain-curtailed finish, England added 22 now-crucial runs in about as many minutes before a ball kept low to James Anderson and skittled him. Those runs and the dismissal were both cause for optimism though, handing England a lead of 300 to defend and two days to get ten wickets on a deteriorating surface in order to seal a significant series win.
Sri Lanka weren’t out of it, of course. They had successfully chased higher totals than this to win Test matches on three occasions - though two of those were against a weak Zimbabwe. More pertinently, each innings in this match had, in turn, seen more runs: 290, 336 and then 346. 301 to win, then, was not utterly implausible and through the day it somehow managed to waver between pipe dream and near-certainty. Such is Test cricket.
To bowl, then, where Jack Leach became the first England player to open the batting and bowling in the same Test match since Graham Gooch did so in Faisalabad in 1987, and while he didn’t make much of an impression as a nightwatchman on Friday he proved decisive for England with the ball, starting the tumble of wickets with a sumptuous delivery to dismiss Kaushal Silva on a day that he would finish with four scalps.
The Somerset spinner lured Silva down the track, daring him to use his feet, then span the ball past the outside edge for Ben Foakes - who had ended England’s second innings 65 not out earlier in the day - to take a fairly regulation stumping.
In his next over Leach had another as Dhananjaya de Silva brushed a straightening delivery off his pads and Keaton Jennings, under the helmet at short leg, made a sublime reaction catch with one hand.
Another over, another wicket as Leach then slipped one by Kusal Mendis to trap him LBW, though he needed a review to seal the deal.
By that point Sri Lanka were 26 for 3 and it felt as if England could begin to assume victory formation. With Dimuth Karunaratne still there though, the hosts always felt like they had a chance. He has looked like one of the few batsmen in this team who have the discipline to hang around for long spells and were they to get close to 301, it would need a monumental effort from him and likely Angelo Mathews, their best batter of the series so far, alongside him.
Leach had pointed out after Thursday’s play that the pitch was at its most dangerous when the ball was hard and that, as it softened, wickets would be harder to come by.
If that early flurry of wickets hadn’t proven that, then more evidence came as Karunaratne and Mathews bedded in and the ball did less off the pitch. The other thing of note that Leach had said that night was that England’s spinners would have to be patient, that with the ball no longer ripping it was important to maintain the correct lengths and wait for the mistake.
Joe Root had mentioned something similar about setting his fields, how he was willing to be less aggressive and be patient waiting for the pitch to help out or in search of errors.
Errors or inspiration, that is.
Karunaratne and Mathews were motoring along nicely and hauling the hosts back into contention when Jennings’ second piece of magic in the field produced a much-needed breakthrough.
The Sri Lankan opener got down to sweep and Jennings set off from short leg, anticipating the paddle. Karunaratne connected well but Jennings got a hand to it, unable to hold on but achieving sufficient force to palm it into Foakes’ path.
England celebrated wildly after what felt like a crucial wicket, but those moments of inspiration are so special not just for their significance but for their scarcity, because they are hard to come by. Thusly, what followed was a return to the toil as Roshen Silva, their tormenter from the first innings, paired with Mathews to frustrate and accumulate.
301 began to look not just achievable but in sight. Suddenly Root’s defensive fields were leaking runs and the breakthroughs weren’t coming. Worse than that, Roshen should have been out for 32 when Moeen Ali trapped him in front but England chose not to review, having wasted a DRS referral earlier when Adil Rashid had pitched a ball outside the line of leg stump.
That error of judgement only cost England five runs, with Root correctly taking a review after catching a bat-pad effort off Ali’s bowling shortly after. It is the sort of mistake that could have cost them the match, however. Depending on margins it still could.
At 176/4 the match felt evenly-poised, with the talented but unpredictable Niroshan Dickwella strolling to the crease.
To get a measure of the Sri Lankan keeper’s style, you need only look at his Twitter profile: “until you’re ready to look foolish you’ll never have the possibility of being great.”
That so succinctly summarises Dickwella’s swashbuckling approach, and with Mathews set at the other end he came in and counter-attacked England’s beleaguered bowlers in the way that Sam Curran and Jos Buttler had done to them previously.
Scoring at faster than a run a ball, Dickwella helped Sri Lanka past 200 with only double digits now needed for a previously unlikely victory.
With the afternoon ticking on, the dark clouds once again moving in on Pallekele reflected England’s mood at tea with the Sri Lankans boasting two settled batsmen and needing just 80 to win and five wickets in hand.
Once again Root was in search of error or inspiration. And though the weather later wouldn’t, luck chose to smile on Root as Ali picked up his second wicket of the innings in Mathews, caught by Ben Stokes at slip in the first over after tea.
The dismissal of the veteran all-rounder was always the key for England and when Dilruwan Perera followed shortly after, Dickwella was left as Sri Lanka’s main hope.
There he will stay, though, with that wicket the signal for the umpires to take the players off the field and with a deluge arriving minutes later, play for the day was done.
Sri Lanka go into day five at 226/7, 75 runs short of levelling the series. England need three wickets, a haul that their bowling has, at times, looked both incredibly close and a million miles from being able to achieve.
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