Jayawardene summons the spirit of defiance
Trent Bridge has a curious effect on visiting international captains. It was on this ground last summer that Ricky Ponting's air of insouciance finally evaporated, as he ranted and raved at anyone within earshot after being run out by Gary Pratt. Today, Mahela Jayawardene had a moment that, if anything, was even more out of character, as he belted his off stump into oblivion after giving his wicket away when well set.
Jayawardene apologised instantly and the moment was soon forgotten - though not by the match referee, who fined him 20 percent of his fee, and certainly not by his team-mates. For there was one subtle difference between the two outbursts. Whereas Ponting's served as an admission of Australia's shortcomings in a series that would be lost, Jayawardene's was a crie de coeur from a captain who knows that the battle is only just hotting up.
Trevor Penney, Sri Lanka's assistant coach, said afterwards that the team had given their captain a bit of space after his dismissal and understandably so, for his fury at chasing the widest delivery he had received all day would have been palpable even without the public display that followed. But the manner in which Chamara Kapugedera, a callow 19-year-old in only his second Test, and the inevitable Chaminda Vaas knuckled down to continue the task that Jayawardene had begun, was proof of the resolve that runs straight through their dressing-room.
It will not have escaped Jayawardene's notice that England have been distracted to the point of disinterest in this series - they have shown shades of the old-school English mentality, when it took two decades for Sri Lanka to be granted their first three-Test series, and even that only came about after Muttiah Muralitharan's wonder-match at The Oval in 1998.
That triumph was marshalled by the inimitable Arjuna Ranatunga, a man whose in-your-face combativeness helped harden the senior crop of players in this side. His lessons have been passed onto a new generation in this match, because under Jayawardene's captaincy, Sri Lanka's will to win has been every bit as ferocious. They've stripped their attack of the deadwood medium-pacers who proved such cannon-fodder at Lord's, and with the bat they've summoned once again the spirit of defiance that carried them to that memorable draw.
"It's a very exciting and enthralling situation," added Penney. "We set out this morning to bat the three sessions, and if we could do that we'd set a decent target. Anytime we seemed set to nail England in the coffin, we seemed to lose wickets, which was a bit disappointing, but I had that feeling the guys were zoned in and weren't going to give away their wickets cheaply."
The rearguard at Lord's was initially dismissed as a freak - nine English dropped catches helped create an atmosphere in which Sri Lanka's batsmen were able to feel utterly invincible. Few imagined, however, it could serve as the template for an even more extraordinary performance. Despite Monty Panesar's delusional optimism at the close, England are well and truly up against it now.
"We'd like to bowl them out for under 300, but anything under 350 is fine," claimed Panesar. But Sri Lanka's lead is already 288 - which is already higher than the 284 for 6 that England successfully chased on this ground against a Daniel Vettori-less New Zealand in 2004, and higher than the 264 for 3 that India hunted down against Sri Lanka five years ago - a match that contained a 98 not out from Sourav Ganguly that was arguably one of his finest Test innings.
It'll take something similar from one, and more probably two, of England's top-order to come close to salvaging this game. But England's list of walking wounded grows longer by the day. Kevin Pietersen (hamstring) and Paul Collingwood (Malinga-ed ribs) both took time out of the field today but have been passed fit to resume tomorrow, although Andrew Flintoff's overworked ankle is a source of greater concern. As one captain prepares to return to the fray, England can scarcely afford to lose the other.
Sri Lanka's capitulation in the first innings now seems like a blessing in disguise. By the time it had been matched by England, the net effect was to advance the game so rapidly that Sri Lanka will be able to grind out a lead over five sessions, and still have more than a day and a half to twirl England to oblivion.
And if Murali really is thinking of hanging up his spikes in the not-so-distant future, then he could scarcely have dreamed of a more appropriate way to sign off. "This is a nice Sri Lankan wicket," said Penney, with more than a hint of excitement in his eyes. A little bit slow, a little bit dry, and turning even for Kevin Pietersen in his speculative two-over spell. Never mind that he has 627 Test wickets to his name already. Murali's eyes will be as wide as flying saucers when his turn to bowl finally comes.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo