Sides prepare for fourth-day scrap
The third day in Kandy belonged exclusively to Muttiah Muralitharan, and yet at the same time it did not. While the magnitude of his achievement rightly dominated the day's proceedings, somewhere beneath the hype and felicitations, a good old-fashioned nuggety Test match was taking shape. By the close it was Sri Lanka with their noses in front, but for the new world-record victim, Paul Collingwood, the battle for supremacy was only just taking shape.
"We're still in this game, definitely," said Collingwood, whose priority for the day was not the ball that turned him into a footnote in the record-books, but his seventh-wicket partnership with Ryan Sidebottom that shattered a thousand preconceptions. The expectation had been for England's tail to fold meekly in the face of destiny, but instead the pair defied Murali for a full hour and a half to build their side towards a crucial 93-run lead. It was indicative not only of the depths of England's concentration and resolve, but also of the familiar nature of the Kandy surface.
This pitch is destined to get slower and slower, and lower and lower, just as it did three years ago, when Michael Vaughan steered his side to safety with a seven-and-a-half hour century. "I've played so many games here in the past," said Murali. "The wicket gets dusty but the lack of bounce means players can stay there. Scoring runs will be difficult but you can stay there without giving away your wicket."
Sri Lanka's aim, said Murali, was to bat for a further two-and-a-half sessions, then lay into England with a 300-run lead in the bank. It's the sort of scenario that Collingwood was born to combat. "When you play cricket over here it's a proper scrap," he said, with more than a hint of relish. "We fought hard and put a good total on this morning, but it's been difficult to take wickets. Even so, it's the sort of pitch where you can lose them in clusters, so hopefully we'll put them under pressure."
Collingwood's concentration in the morning was so absolute that he claimed not to have noticed the frisson in the air as Murali circled in pursuit of his 709th and record victim. "To be honest I forgot all about it," he said. "When you're involved in a Test match you're not thinking about records. I was just playing how I normally play, but when the ball hit the stumps and I heard the fireworks going off, I thought that it must be something special."
The ball that confounded him was indeed something special - so special, in fact, that not even Murali knew what he had delivered. "I think I tried to spin it and it stayed straight," he said. "I was bowling with the new ball and it skidded on." Collingwood was gone for a fighting 45, but afterwards he was phlegmatic as he recalled the moment. "It's an amazing feat," he said. "It's not very nice being the victim, but maybe I'll look back at the end of my career and think I'm happy to be the 709th."
Sri Lanka's build-up to this Test had been fraught with rumours of retirements and speculation about impending records, and in a single day's play, two of the hottest topics have been scotched. Having fretted for two days, desperate not to disappoint his hometown fans, Murali can now relax into his role for the second innings. "That's why I couldn't get many wickets in Australia," he joked. "It had to happen here."
Sanath Jayasuriya can also relax. Having confirmed that this is indeed his final stand, he can now expect his darting left-arm spinners to play a critical support role in grinding England down. His explosive curtain-call is sure to be forgotten amid everything else that has gone on in this game, but it was an invaluable demonstration of his unique art.
The piece de resistance was his record-equalling over against James Anderson, in which every single ball was clobbered for four - a feat made all the more extraordinary given the sluggish nature of the surface. This was not The Oval in August, the scene of Chris Gayle's similar assault on Matthew Hoggard three years ago. Jayasuriya had to apply the humpty all by himself, and in so doing rather undermined Collingwood's assertion that "you had to scrap for every run".
Nevertheless, not all batsmen are as free-spirited as Jayasuriya, certainly not Sri Lanka's two incumbents, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. They will resume tomorrow with one thing in mind - grinding, purposeful accumulation. Murali has his record back, but now all Sri Lanka wants is victory.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo