England v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Lord's, 5th day May 15, 2006

Sri Lanka find inner strength



Mahela Jayawardene's exceptional hundred showed his team-mates that the impossible was possible © Getty Images
On Friday evening, after a powder-puff bowling display and a spineless top-order performance, Sri Lanka lay in tatters. A three-day finish appeared inevitable. If you wandered into the Lord's Media Centre and predicted a draw on the Saturday morning you'd have been branded insane and hurried off for a reality check with Geoff Boycott, who was announcing on Test Match Special that the hitherto unknown bowling skills of his mother - a lady previously renowned just for her batting - would be sufficient to see-off these sorry tourists.

But at 5.43pm on Monday bad light was offered for the last time on a stop-start final day, completing one of the most remarkable rearguards in the history of the game. Sri Lanka, having been asked to follow-on, displaying fortitude that few believed they possessed, held England at bay for eight sessions, through three new balls and 199 overs. They'd scored their highest second innings score in their 25-year history as a Test nation, the highest ever second innings score at Lord's and seven players passed fifty - a world record.

If ever a draw was worth more than a victory then this was it. Written-off, openly derided, widely underrated - even by their chairman of selectors - Sri Lanka were on the brink of meltdown. An innings defeat may have caused irreparable damage to their already fragile confidence, paving the way for a humiliating thrashing in the remaining games. But their astonishing transformation in the second innings, salvaged pride, gained respect and will have injected fresh self-belief into a team that will now truly believe, probably for the first time, that they can really challenge England during the coming weeks.

When Mahela Jayawardene, the new leader who galvanised the fight back with a brilliant hundred, deservedly winning the Man-of-the-Match award, was robbed of his wicket on Sunday evening by a short ball that tickled his rib cage but not his bat, it appeared that only London's rain and gloom could be Sri Lanka's saviour. But, aided by England's hapless catching, Sri Lanka's resistance stiffened with Tillakaratne Dilshan, Nuwan Kulasekara and, especially, Chaminda Vaas, who dead-batted his way to 50 not out from 188 balls, all playing crucial roles. Even Murali, a serial bat-swisher, swung into line and defended stoutly.

Indeed, while Jayawardene's performance was exceptional - showing his team-mates that the impossible was possible - what made Sri Lanka's escape so special was the number of contributors. It was a team effort from the top to the bottom with several players lifting themselves to hitherto untouched heights. Sri Lanka knew they had some talented young players in this squad with great potential, but during this game they discovered some of those youngsters - Tharanga, Maharoof and Kulasekara - also had the inner-strength to perform at the highest level.

Of course, Sri Lanka, once the thrill of their escape settles, will realise that their survival would not have been possible without such a torpid display from England in the field. They're astute enough to understand that England's terrible catching ultimately let them off the hook. In the words of one seasoned English writer, this was, from the home team's perspective, "the mother of all xxxx-ups."

Sri Lanka have survived to fight another day but at Edgbaston in ten days time they need to start as strongly as they finished here. The bowlers must find a cutting edge and the top order must provide first-innings runs. This match was a friendly affair, marked with the overt chumminess between Flintoff and Muralitharan, but the next contest will surely see a ramping-up of intensity. Sri Lanka left England red-faced today and must quickly start preparation for the backlash because the fires of a real battle have now been lit.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent