It took more sweat and toil than Sri Lanka might have envisaged but they eventually wrapped up an 88-run victory in the first Test at Kandy about 20 minutes before bad light would have come to England's rescue. A defiant stand of 109 in 44 overs between Ian Bell and Matt Prior gave England hope of survival after a poor morning session; then, in fitting style, Muttiah Muralitharan removed both with wicked deliveries to ensure a match that started with him as centre of attention ended with him the hero.
But it took Muralitharan more than two sessions to make his decisive mark. Chaminda Vaas and Dilhara Fernando did the damage before Sri Lanka came up against the Bell-Prior alliance. As England ticked down the minutes during the final session Mahela Jayawardene began to fret, perhaps having flashbacks to the 2003-04 series when England hung on in the first two Tests. He'd already taken some criticism for his late declaration on the fourth evening and that would have intensified had the result escaped Sri Lanka. He was reluctant to set over-attacking fields, often placing a man at deep point. However, he always had Murali.
Jayawardene threw him the new ball, taken as soon as it became available, and with the last ball of his 32nd over he produced a ripping doosra that spun past the edge of Prior's defensive shot. Muralitharan had found the going tough with the lack of bounce from the old ball, but the harder nut skidded off the surface slightly quicker. With the second delivery of his next over Bell's 209-ball defiance was ended by another beauty, this time the ball drifting past the edge into the stumps.
It left the bowlers with the best part of an hour to survive and it proved beyond them. Ryan Sidebottom received a poor decision from Asad Rauf after getting a clear inside edge off Muralitharan and Matthew Hoggard was battling with his back problem. England employed all the tricks to try and use up some time and received a few moments help from the local dog, who decided to lay down in the outfield before being chased off by anxious Sri Lankans. But there was enough light remaining for Jayawardene to bring back Lasith Malinga. He homed in on Hoggard's feet and claimed the final wicket with a searing yorker.
For Sri Lanka it completes a notable victory, considering their position of 42 for 5 before lunch on the opening day. Slowly but surely they extracted the advantage of home conditions and Muralitharan proved a deciding factor, as he has so often in his record-breaking career. England, though, will rue their poor morning session, where they lost four wickets to Vaas and Fernando, and also a match where their batsmen have made starts but not converted. In conditions where beginning an innings is hard work, they will have to learn from Kumar Sangakkara's book and score big.
However, the efforts of Bell and Prior to try and salvage the match will stand them in good stead for the future. The early wickets left England with a mountain to climb at lunch following a period where the batsmen showed some poor judgement. The most culpable was the normally resolute Paul Collingwood who drove a catch to extra-cover, but Kevin Pietersen can be exonerated as his delivery from Fernando barely rose above ankle height.
Bell played in a different manner from his free-flowing 83 in the first innings, taking 154 balls to bring up his half-century. Prior showed impressive composure after his first-innings duck and initially wasn't afraid to play his shots. He took a painful blow on the jaw from a Fernando bouncer and survived a confident appeal for caught behind off Muralitharan shortly before tea. His third Test half-century came from 131 deliveries before his demise gave Sri Lanka the opening they needed.
While Muralitharan was the trump card it was an all-round effort from Sri Lanka's bowlers. Vaas, under pressure to prove his worth to the side after he was dropped against Australia, showed his value with some exemplary swing bowling to remove Michael Vaughan and James Anderson. Fernando went through his full repertoire of slower balls and bouncers and there was a final moment for the retiring Sanath Jayasuriya, who ended Ravi Bopara's elegant 34 with a well disguised arm-ball.
At that point, with England 139 for 6 and almost two sessions remaining, it appeared a comfortable finish for Sri Lanka. It turned into a nerve-shredding contest for all concerned, but Kandy wasn't to be denied another chance to celebrate in a match full of memories. Jayasuriya finishes his career on a high while Muralitharan can continue to enjoy his record in the glow of victory.
Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo