Sangakkara finally leaves his hallmark on England
When Kumar Sangakkara arrived at the crease on day three, Liam Plunkett hurled a rocket at his chest. The Headingley pitch had been misbehaving since the second afternoon, and this was one of its naughtiest moments. The game's fastest bowler was provoking it to mischief.
In the first innings, Lahiru Thirimanne had got a similar delivery first-up, and he fended a catch to short leg. Given the abysmal series Thirimanne has had, maybe surviving the same ball does not mean much. But the one Sangakkara got was a brute all the same. The kind that makes kids want to become fast bowlers.
Sangakkara deflected that one in front of short leg, but he knew the bowler had had the better of him. He looked down at the spot on the pitch that had caused him grief, then looked away, walking toward square leg, then back again. He shuffled his feet and took guard. The next legitimate ball was wide and full. He stretched out and cracked it through the covers as hard as he has hit any ball in the series.
A hush hung over Headingley for a moment, then lifted with a swell of appreciation. The Yorkshire crowd is partisan, urging England on, saving their loudest for the local lads, but they know cricketing excellence when they see it. When Sangakkara was dismissed - perhaps for the last time in England - the ground stood to their feet to clap him off the field. But few will have known Sangakkara's curious relationship with the cover drive when the clapped that first four. Many will also have been unaware of the batsman's troubles in England, before this tour.
The cover drive has been Sangakkara's signature stroke for much of his career, because it is almost a marvel of engineering. The step forward is swift and precise. The still head and fast hands, practiced and mechanical. The back knee bends just enough to stabilise him, and the entire movement is set off by a checked flourish forged of control. The ball only ever goes in a slim arc between cover and extra cover. Mahela Jayawardene played a cover drive too on the third day, but his rendition of the stroke is languid and musical; more dependent on his mood, than the ball and the fielders, and capable of going almost anywhere in front of square.
In many ways, the cover drive is a microcosm of Sangakkara's cricket - meticulously refined and supremely efficient - but on previous tours of England, it had sometimes been his undoing. In the 2011 tour, he was out to it in Southampton and at Lord's lunging at the ball when it had curved away from him. It has frustrated him in other parts of the world too, across all formats.
In the last match at Lord's, England tempted him wide of off stump for a good ten overs, when he arrived in the first innings. But in that innings, Sangakkara was hell-bent on his raid for a hundred. He could not be drawn into the shot until he was past 30, and even then, he applied it economically.
The stroke was a risk at Headingley too, particularly against Plunkett, whose extra bounce had done Jayawardene in, when he drove outside off stump in the first innings. But for Sangakkara, the third day was no day for restraint. He was in the middle to move his team's cause forward, but also to make a mark. In all likelihood, this is his last outing in England.
He was glad for his error-riddled 79 in the first innings, but when he came off the field, most people would not stop deriding the innings. Sangakkara has been a dream interview for several major English papers since he arrived in the country, but when a radio station spoke to him before the second day, and led with "Wasn't the best innings you've ever played, yesterday, was it?", Sangakkara was audibly agitated: "That's the way it sometimes goes in cricket, the important thing is getting the runs." The reply was uncommonly brief. Over the next few minutes, one of the game's most eloquent speakers would not offer more than a six-second answer to any of the interviewer's stream of questions.
On Sunday, the first ball from Plunkett elicited the only ugly moment from Sangakkara. From the very next ball, he was intent on reassuming dominance. He scored faster than any Sri Lanka batsman on the day, and sent four balls through the covers during his 55. The cover drive accounted for a higher percentage of his runs in this innings, than in any other this series.
He has now scored as many 50-plus scores on the trot as any batsman has ever managed, only, he has a triple ton and a couple of centuries among that string of scores. He has raised his average in England to 41.04, when it had languished at just over 30 before the tour, creating doubt over his greatness. His 342 runs is more than any Sri Lanka batsman has scored in a single series in England.
On day three at Headingley, he recovered from Plunkett's first ball, and his strange first innings. For many in the country, where his record has now recovered too, that cool, calculated cover drive will be the enduring hallmark of the memory of his career.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando