Sri Lanka find their fight ... and their off stumps
In the year prior to this tour, Sri Lanka had repeatedly lowered fans' expectations. Two of their three home series in 2015 were lost. Their last four away Tests ended in defeat. With the top order, it occasionally felt like the selectors were trying to refloat the broken Titanic; some failing players' places had become more stable than a barn full of horses.
So before this tour, pundits had not forecast a repeat of 2014. "A 0-1 defeat is as good as a win for Sri Lanka" read one headline in a national daily. A 1-2 loss was as much as most fans would dare to hope for. Having brought expectations to the bottom floor, Sri Lanka then set about crashing through the basement. Ninety-one, 119, 101 - no team had scored fewer runs in their first three innings of an England tour since 1958.
But on day three at Chester-le-Street, something significant occurred. Sri Lanka's batsmen found something that had been missing. They discovered the location of their off stumps, for one. Previously on this tour, they seemed to have been given rough co-ordinates for the off stump, or had it marked "X" on a crude map. They understood the stump's existence, but poked speculatively in an area ranging approximately from the popping crease to backward point.
Three batting days into the tour, Sri Lanka came to the end of their expedition. Kaushal Silva left James Anderson's outswing decisively. Dimuth Karunaratne was caught at second slip eventually, but had been similarly disciplined, and made his first start of the series before that. Towards the end of the day, Milinda Siriwardana had even begun to leave balls on length - a strategy that had featured heavily in Sri Lanka's 2014 triumph in England.
Also discovered, after the early movement had disappeared, was a range of Sri Lankan cricket bats. The long, floppy toothpicks that had been used in the series so far had been traded in. Silva's elaborate pre-ball routine had been about the most consistent thing about the Sri Lanka batting, but today the minimalistic drives that set his game in order were there too. The morning he merely survived. After lunch, he set his thoughts on flourishing.
"In the second innings, we were positive from the beginning," Kaushal said after play. "Whatever we do - whether we leave the ball, play a stroke, run between wickets. The problem is if you play the ball in two minds, you ended up getting out. What we did was to back ourselves 100 percent with our shots. Even if you play a rash shot, commit fully to it, because it's better if it goes over the slips than to them."
Angelo Mathews' brushes with the review system had been so bad this tour that you couldn't help but fear the worst for him when two referrals were made before he scored. He'd surely be out, you thought. And, with his luck having steadily worsened, he might even split his pants on the trek back to the dressing room. Thankfully for Sri Lanka, Mathews was correctly ruled not out twice, and then his bolder batting avatar appeared for the first time. He sent Stuart Broad whip-wristedly through midwicket, then thunked Moeen Ali into the bleachers not long after. Once a batsman who turned Sri Lanka's matches, more recently the embalmer who makes the team's corpse more presentable, an 80 off 105 may just put the steel back in his game. If only he could captain like he bats.
Dinesh Chandimal's demotion to No. 6 returned the spark back to his game, and the man who prodded tentatively in three innings became the maverick whose head still falls over in the shot while his bat sends the ball for four. He sent Moeen into the cow-corner fence with a few flapping slogs, but reached his fifty with a cover drive as crisp as the northern wind.
If Chandimal and Siriwardana can survive most of the morning session on Monday, they may even avoid an innings loss. Anything better seems improbable. Today Sri Lanka began to pee on the raging fire they had started on day two, but flames are still licking the walls and roof. The house still appears likely to burn down. Yet, if they can emerge from Chester-le-Street with the nuts, bolts and beams of their game in order, maybe something can better can be hashed together in the relative warmth at Lord's.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando