Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott earned England an outside chance of a remarkable victory with a resolute partnership against Sri Lanka on the third day of the first Test in Galle. (Scorecard)
England, set a daunting 340 to win, reached 111 for the loss of both their openers before the close. Bearing in mind that England have been dismissed for under 260 in six of their last seven Test innings and have never successfully chased more than 332 to win a Test, the weight of history and logic is against them.
Statistics at Galle also provide little comfort. No team has scored more than 253 in the fourth innings of any of the 18 previous Tests on this ground and the highest successful fourth-innings chase at the ground is just 96.
England - Trott and Pietersen in particular - had reduced the requirement to 229 by the close in an unbroken stand of 63, playing straight, using their feet and keeping their cool despite the pressure of the match situation. The pitch held no terrors, either. It has provided assistance to spinners, certainly, but it has not crumbled into the bowling paradise that some predicted. Not yet, anyway. The result, against an honest but modest attack, is not quite a foregone conclusion.
If Sri Lanka did go on to win - and they still should - it would not only mark their first home success without Murali, but would mean England have lost four Tests in a row. For a side who retain, for now, the title of No. 1 Test side, that would represent an acute embarrassment. The title rings very hollow at present.
Sri Lanka, by contrast, will have many reasons to thank their pair of unrelated Jayawardenes: Prasanna and Mahela. While it was the latter's first-innings century that plotted the direction of this game it was the former's second innings half-century that drove the defining nail into England's coffin.
Prasanna has kept impressively - his stumping of Trott in the first innings and neat take of Alastair Cook in England's second were fine pieces of work - but equally valuable was the way he helped Sri Lanka eke out 87 runs from the final two wickets. He was watchful for the most part, but still took the opportunity to attack when appropriate, pulling sixes off James Anderson and Stuart Broad and driving Monty Panesar for another.
Prasanna received admirably obdurate support from Chanaka Welegedara and Suranga Lakmal as England, hoping to wrap up the innings well before lunch, were kept in the field until the tea interval was in sight. In the end, it took a run-out to end the Sri Lankan innings and, understandably, England's spirits and shoulders drooped just a little in the heat. Win or lose, England must reflect on their many missed opportunities in this game. Not only have their batsmen continued to underperform - to be bowled out within 47 overs was woeful on a day two Test surface - but they have also squandered several chances in the field. Mahela was reprieved four times during his century, while on the third day Broad made the sort of error that, in this era of professionalism, could reduce a bowling coach to tears of rage.
Broad thought he had finished off the Sri Lankan innings on 168 when Prasanna Jayawardene top-edged a return catch to the bowler. But a review by umpire Rod Tucker showed that Broad had overstepped - his eighth no-ball of the game - and England's bowlers were obliged to continue their efforts. No other bowler from either side has overstepped in the game.
Perhaps Samit Patel, on the deep midwicket boundary, might also have done better with a chance offered to him by Jayawardene off Graeme Swann on 53. In attempting to parry the ball back into play, however, Patel's momentum saw him tread on the boundary rope and concede six. While the incident may fuel the suggestion that Patel's fitness remains an issue, it was a fiendishly tricky chance.
Prasanna Jayawardene's resilience took the gloss off a fine performance from Swann. The form of England's off-spinner has been much debated of late with critics seeming to overlook the fact that he actually had the best strike-rate of any England bowler in the Test series against Pakistan in the UAE. Here, however, his performance brooked no argument: he gained drift from the breeze, turn from the pitch and produced the dip that renders him so dangerous. He comfortably outbowled Panesar and finished with 6 for 82. It was the 12th five-wicket haul of his Test career and his best of his eight five-wicket hauls outside England.
How Andrew Strauss could do with a similarly uncompromising performance. Here England's captain was drawn down the pitch by a flighted delivery and drove to mid-on - the idea was fine; the execution horrid - and now has one century in his last 48 Test innings and an average of 25.50 in the last calendar year. While England were winning that may be ignorable. Once they start losing, it becomes a major issue.
Alastair Cook might consider himself unfortunate. Originally reprieved by the on-field umpire, Tucker, Cook was adjudged to have edged to Prasanna by third umpire Bruce Oxenford. Oxenford privately suggested that he could see a change of direction and so overruled Tucker: it was not all that obvious to television viewers.
The rest of the day belonged to England. Trott, sweeping with rare command, survived a reviewed LBW decision on seven, but otherwise looked admirably solid, while Pietersen, on eight, cleared mid-off by inches as he miscued a lofted drive and was then dropped on 12 at leg slip by Kumar Sangakkara off Suraj Randiv. It was a hard chance but, in a game of full of errors, it may yet prove to have been a turning point.