England rewarded for digging deep
England's cricketers will not know what has hit them when they return home on Sunday. The domestic season has dawned with temperatures requiring multiple layers, while the international players have been sweating buckets trying to regain their reputation in Sri Lanka. Never more so than the fourth day in Colombo, which ended with them sensing a series-levelling victory.
That chance, though, did not appear so close just two overs from the close. Graeme Swann was tossed the ball for six deliveries and in the space of three of them changed the complexion of the day. Before Thilan Samaraweera was beaten by sharp turn, bottom edging into leg stump, Sri Lanka had forged a position from where safety was a realistic aim yet a few minutes later England left the field buoyant. Well, as buoyant as they could be after 90 overs of unremitting hard work.
It is impossible not admire that trait about the England team. Sure, they have had their problems in recent months but they never shirk from doing the hard yards in the field. It has been a hallmark of their cricket in recent years. Matt Prior reckoned he had lost about 3kg by lunch, let alone what another two sessions had done to him after bending and squatting at least 540 times in the day.
"On days like today you have to sit in and be attritional, hope that you get your opportunities and take them, more importantly," Prior said. "It's massive, you think you've earned it. It doesn't always happen like that. Sometimes you walk off with them four down and think we put a lot of work in and didn't get rewards. Thankfully we got them today."
England banked on making something happen with the new ball - although Swann was probably not the expected route - which put the onus on James Anderson and Steven Finn to respond at the end of a long day. Anderson's final six-over spell (which cost just five runs and could easily have claimed a wicket) was as good as anything he had bowled in the match. That is the hallmark of a supreme athlete and wonderful bowler.
Swann is often quick to deprecate himself by highlighting how he skips in off a few steps, but in these situations the pressure is on the spinner. He is meant to be the matchwinner. Time and again Swann has delivered for England. When he was brought on during the afternoon - after Samit Patel had surprisingly been used at the start of the session - he struck first ball, albeit slightly controversially, to remove Tillakaratne Dilshan. That first-over trick is returning, as Samaraweera (and Suraj Randiv) later found out.
In between he prized out Kumar Sangakkara who, regardless of his struggle for form, remains a key wicket. To keep him quiet throughout a series, even a short one, is another feather in the bowlers' caps. It is well known how much Swann enjoys bowling at left-handers (which conventional offspinner has not?) and it was engaging to watch to him tease and tempt Sangakkara.
When he is at his best Swann gives Strauss two options - attack and defence. In the first innings, especially on the second morning, he helped ensure the scoring rate did not escape England, so when wickets did fall Sri Lanka had not moved too far. Too his credit, Patel also performed that role - his match economy rate stands at under two an over - but he does not possess the same skill of suddenly snaffling a vital wicket, although could have had Mahela Jayawardene if Tim Bresnan had leapt a little higher at mid-on in the first over after tea.
There were moments when the game when flat and you wondered if England were running out of puff. However, as on the first day when they claimed crucial late success which swayed the balance their way they had reserves left in their deep tanks.
"In these conditions you have to pick your moments when you go up and go through the gears," Prior explained. "Not only as bowlers, but as a fielding unit. We used the second new ball really well, we knew it was a good chance to fire in. Led by Jimmy and Finny the whole energy levels raised up and I think that's why we created those chances."
The job, however, is not quite done. By a quirk of Sri Lanka using two nightwatchmen in the innings - Dhammika Prasad opened the batting last night before Randiv came in at No. 7 - it means Angelo Mathews is at the crease with Prasanna Jayawardene still to come. Both have Test hundreds, while Mahela Jaywardene was still at the crease, defying England again.
"We'd be reluctant to think we can just roll them over. It's still a good wicket and we have four more to get out," Prior said. "It will be tough work. Hopefully we can roll through them but that's not what we are expecting. Whatever they set us we'll back ourselves to get."
The last time England had a realistic fourth-innings run chase it proved way beyond them as they collapsed for 72 in Abu Dhabi trying to reach 145. "Sometimes to have the opportunity again is the best way to exorcise a ghost," Prior said. "Each individual knows how we got it wrong that time. It was a long time ago now, in cricket terms, and we've moved on."
This is the first occasion during the year that England have taken a Test to the fifth day. They will hope it is a short one, but will not be afraid of digging deep again. They really know no other way.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo