England eased to safety on the fifth and final afternoon at Colombo, thanks to a trio of half-centuries from Michael Vaughan, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell, a sensible fourth-wicket stand of 46 between Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood, and a tea-time deluge that wrote off a potentially tricky final session. With grey clouds lurking all day, the draw had always been the odds-on result, but until the rains finally came, England could not rest easy. Their lead at tea was a meagre 53 with seven wickets standing, and when Muttiah Muralitharan is involved, no cause can ever be entirely written off.
England's progress in the first two sessions was serene but Sri Lanka never sensed that the task of victory was beyond them, largely because each of the top three gave their wickets away when well set. Vaughan and Cook resumed with England on 48 for 0 overnight, and duly went on to post their second century stand of the match - the first time it had been done by the same English opening combination since Boycott and Edrich at Adelaide in 1970-71. But as in the first innings, neither man could push on to record a century of his own, and in fact England have now made 10 fifties in the series, but a highest score of 87.
Despite the threat of rain, Vaughan and Cook did not bat as if they had one eye on the heavens. Instead they set about eating into their 197-run deficit with calculated aggression, and Vaughan set the tone from the very start of the day, lacing Lasith Malinga for four fours in his first two overs. The first was a touch streaky, as it sped along the ground through the slip cordon, but the next three were shots of the highest class - two clips off the toes followed by a sumptuous and trademark drive through the covers.
Vaughan continued to bat with complete fluency and as long as he was at the crease, England's survival was assured. But, on 61, Dilhara Fernando served up a full-length slower ball, which Vaughan popped straight back into the bowler's midriff. He was aghast as he trudged off the pitch but his replacement, Bell, started with equal confidence. He cracked two fours in an over from a subdued Chaminda Vaas, and signed off the morning session in style with a lofted drive over mid-on against Muralitharan, just to demonstrate that England were not going to be cowed on this final day.
Cook, whose first-innings 81 had been a laborious but essential performance, chugged along to 62 not out at lunch. His morning's work was interrupted by a 20-minute rain break, but he seemed happy once again to play the anchor role. His most attacking moment came with consecutive driven boundaries in Vaas's opening over. But, with the first ball after the resumption, Cook reawakened England's anxieties as he steered a gentle legbreak into the hands of Mahela Jayawardene at slip. The bowler was none other than Chamara Silva, whose only previous international bowling experience had come at the Twenty20 World Championship.
That wasn't the only surprise that Jayawardene sprung as he strived for the breakthrough. He even dusted off his own offbreaks, after a two-and-a-half year hiatus, presumably as a reaction to Muttiah Muralitharan's appeal for spin-bowling support. But predictably, it was Murali who made the next breakthrough. Bell had batted with consummate class all throughout this series, but he simply cannot convert his starts at the moment. Since the start of the Ashes last November, he has made 11 fifties in 14 Tests, but converted only one of them to a hundred. Today was a gilt-edged opportunity to notch up a red-inker, but instead he hoisted Murali straight to Michael Vandort at mid-on. The intent was plain, but the execution flawed.
England at that stage were effectively 7 for 3 with more than three hours of the match still scheduled, but Pietersen and Collingwood knuckled down for the rearguard. Pietersen as ever was the dominant partner with 45 from 79 balls, including a swatted six over midwicket off Silva, while Collingwood was ever circumspect for his unbeaten 23 from 67. Then the clouds burst on the stroke of the interval, and that was emphatically that.