It would probably be stretching things a little to compare James Anderson to Dame Judi Dench, Sir David Attenborough or even the late Queen mother.

But, as he rose above the conditions to produce another outstanding performance - a performance that kept his side in this match despite losing an important toss - the thought occurred: he's been around forever, he's reliably excellent and it's hard to avoid the suspicion they don't make them like this anymore. He is, despite the chuntering - which is rarer these days - well on the road to becoming a national treasure.

Anderson could have been forgiven for letting out a sigh of despair when England were sentenced to a day in the field. There was nothing for him here: not seam; not swing; not pace. Just oppressive humidity and a temperature that would have a tomato loosening its collar. For a man who claimed just one Test wicket on the last tour of Sri Lanka, it might have been an intimidating prospect.

But so great is Anderson's control, so impressive his array of skills, he found a way to not just build pressure but claim his best Test figures in Sri Lanka since 2012. Despite his age, he delivered 19 overs in the day - 10 of them maidens - conceding just 24 for his three wickets. And so high are his standards, so much does he detest conceding runs, he still left the pitch grumbling to himself after a rare loose ball in the last over of the day allowed Niroshan Dickwella to flick one off his legs for four.

Bowling, like batting, isn't just about doing the right thing. It's every bit as much about not doing the wrong thing. And what Anderson is able to achieve better than most, is an ability to marry variation without releasing pressure.

So here, despite the lack of assistance, he was able to gain a fraction of reverse-swing, a hint of bounce and a scintilla of seam movement. Combined with his control, it allowed him to prey on batsmen's insecurities and impatience. So if the wicket of Kusal Perera - "trying to hit me over the fort," as Anderson put it to the BBC - was a touch fortuitous, perhaps he earned it by starting with a maiden and making it clear that the batsman was having nothing for free.

The wicket of Lahiru Thirimanne was probably the most pleasing. Having probed around the off stump from round the wicket throughout the first session, early in the second Anderson persuaded one to leave the batsman, taking the outside edge as Thirimanne pushed at it. At that stage, he had 3 for 4 in his sixth over.

It was revealing that Anderson admitted he was uncharacteristically nervous going into this game. It had been five months since he had played, after all. He was replacing his old friend Stuart Broad who had done such a sterling job in the first game. - "they're big shoes to fill," Anderson said - and, in his four most-recent Tests in Asia, he had claimed only one wicket across 85 overs. When you're 38, such spells can be interpreted as symptoms of a terminal decline.

England's spinners contributed just four maidens between them and conceded more runs per over than Wood and Anderson. For Bess to deliver fewer overs than Anderson is telling

But we have surely learned not to write-off Anderson. Like Broad, he demonstrates his hunger by retaining his fitness and continuing to develop new skills. And as much as the England management know they have to plan for the future, the fact is Broad and Anderson have so far bowled 45 overs in this series. 24 of them have been maidens and they've claimed six wickets for just 58 runs. The bar for Olly Stone and co is set impossibly high. England's other seamers have claimed 3 for 198 between them.

With all that in mind, you could make a strong case to argue this performance - in these conditions - was of more value than several of those five-fors claimed on green surfaces and with a Duke's ball in England. These are the conditions in which Anderson's critics say he is impotent, after all.

In truth, Anderson's reputation as effective only at home doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. While his bowling is clearly best suited to conditions in England, his record in Asia compares favourably to many of the best in the business. He averages 30.14 across 22-and-a-half Tests in the region. By comparison to other top seamers of the age - Ishant Sharma averages 32.14 in Asia, Kagiso Rabada 34.52, Mohammad Amir 50.46, Vernon Philander 38.06 and Zaheer Khan 34.46 - that is excellent.

Dale Steyn, it should be noted, claimed his Test wickets in Asia at 24.11, while Pat Cummins, in a small sample size of four Tests, averages 29.71.

Anderson won especially fine support from Mark Wood. The figures don't show it, but Wood has been immense in this series and finally claimed his first wicket during an eight-over spell before the arrival of the second new ball.

You wonder what Wood makes of the way he's used by England. He always looks willing; he always runs in with complete commitment. But he played just one Test in helpful conditions during the English summer and he rarely sees anything like a new ball. To then use him in back-to-back matches on surfaces offering him so little assistance… The decision not to award him a full central contract looks more ridiculous by the moment.

England's issue - and it really is a big issue given they are about to head to India for four Tests - is that that can't really rely on their spinners to retain control on flat pitches. Dom Bess and Jack Leach didn't, by any means, bowl badly. It's okay that they don't have the weapons to trouble good batsmen in such conditions. In the key stand, against Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal, they were up against two men averaging more than 40 in Test cricket on a surface that would have tested any spinner. Indeed, Bess bowled far better than in the first innings of the first Test when he finished with figures of 5 for 30.

But what England would like, is just a little more control. And here the spinners contributed just four maidens between them and conceded more runs per over than Wood and Anderson. For Bess, 23, to deliver fewer overs than Anderson is telling. "I wasn't expecting to bowl that many overs," Anderson admitted afterwards.

This was, in some ways, an old-fashioned day's cricket. And absorbing, in its own way. We've been spoiled, really. In the not-so-good old days - before opening batsmen reacted to the introduction of spin by attempting to reverse-sweep them past the slip cordon - this is what Test cricket was like. For those who don't remember, at one point in the 1960s, England drew seven Tests in succession and 13 out of 15.

Often, in such circumstances, England's lack of variation is bemoaned. But they had plenty here: they had pace, left-arm angle and two spinners turning the ball - well, trying to - in opposite directions to one another.

These things are not a silver bullet. Sometimes attrition is the only way. And whatever the conditions, wherever the game, it seems England's elder statesmen remain the answer to their captain's prayers. England know they have to move on at some stage. But, when you've become accustomed to such standards and have something this special, you're going to be very reluctant to waste a drop of it.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo