Sangakkara keeps Sri Lanka hoping
Kumar Sangakkara entered the Rose Bowl Test as a visibly reluctant captain, but by the close of the fourth day's play, he had tapped back into his leadership qualities to emerge as Sri Lanka's only realistic hope of escaping the match with a draw. By the close he was 44 not out from 111 balls, already his best score of the series, and as coach Stuart Law cast one optimistic eye to the heavens, he admitted that anything less than a century would probably spell curtains for his team.
"There is a forecast that suggests there will be some weather about tomorrow," said Law. "It's a shame, as it's hampered the tour and robbed the viewing public of some quality cricket. But while it's in the air we've still got to bat well and with Sanga at the crease we're a very good chance of saving this Test. We need some runs from the middle and late order, but Sanga really is the one to watch tomorrow."
Sangakkara's record in England - which currently stands at 445 runs in nine Tests at 27.81 - is a curious anomaly, a blot on a career record that is already guaranteed to be recalled among the greats. At the age of 33, there is no guarantee he will be back for a fourth tour of England, but by the close he was doing his best to finish this series on a personal high, as he wore the blows of England's confident attack and responded with some counter-thrusts of his own, not least a whistling cover-drive to draw the sting of Stuart Broad's most probing spell of the series.
His looseness outside off stump had a been a notable frailty in his first five innings of the series, and one stabbed cut in James Anderson's final spell bounced inches short of gully. Nevertheless, from the moment he got off the mark with a classy first-ball whip off the pads, Sangakkara looked primed for the tussle that awaited him, as he swayed out of the way of a vicious lifter from Chris Tremlett, and took another ball from Broad on the body rather than let his gloves get in the way.
"Sanga rarely doesn't have the bit between his teeth to be honest," said Law. "If anything he comes out of his comfort zone here and tries too hard to put it right. He scores runs for fun in places like Australia and he's done well in South Africa too, so it's not that he can't play outside the subcontinent. But it's just taken him a while to realise his game and what he needs to do. I think tonight he batted with extreme purpose and looked every bit the world-class player he is."
Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, they still shipped three prime wickets, including Mahela Jayawardene for another single-figure score. The debutant Larihu Thirimanne knuckled down with great resolve to grind out a doughty 38, while Tharanga Paranavitana once again showcased his durability, even if he was unable to turn his crease occupation into runs in an hour-long stay for 10. When asked if he was happy with the application shown by his team, Law was disarmingly honest. "Not really," he said. "You'd always like more.
"But I'm really impressed with Lahiru," he added. "He's gutsed it out, and he played well. As a young kid making his debut in circumstances he's very foreign to, I'm very proud of the way he played today. It's just unfortunate he got out at the wrong time. Obviously you always want your batsmen to score hundreds every time they go out. That's never going to happen, but we do need a bit more."
Prior to the game, Sangakkara's captaincy concerns had hinted at a degree of unrest within the team. The impending return of the player-turned-politician, Sanath Jayasuriya, at the age of 41 is the issue that will confront them as soon as this match is over and attention switches to the one-day leg of the tour. But as Law was at pains to point out, whatever external pressures may currently exist, the players themselves are just pressing on as best they can.
"The dressing room is very happy," he said. "The boys always walk in with a smile on their face. Whatever else happens in the next few weeks, we have no control over it. We have to go out there and play some cricket.
"They deal with these kind of issues day in, day out," he added. "It's never nice but the boys are happy, they get on with their cricket. They know they've got a job, they love playing for their country. They do it for a lot of people back home, they are very proud of that and they want to keep that intact.
"It hasn't gone well for us [so far], but that's not to do with anything in the dressing-room. It's because England have been very, very good. We probably haven't stepped up to the mark a few times, but we have at certain times."
As for Law himself, his own future as coach is still up in the air, with a full-time successor to Trevor Bayliss still to be appointed. "I have spoken to the right people so hopefully it will be resolved very soon," he said. In the immediate future, Sri Lanka will hope the same can be said of Sangakkara's record in England.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo