Alastair Cook’s fifth successive Test half-century helped England overcome the loss of Andrew Strauss for a second-ball duck and move towards safety against Sri Lanka at Lord’s.
Strauss fell lbw on the back foot to Chanaka Welegedara for the second time in this second npower Test, having made only four in two attempts, before England recovered to reach 149 for two by stumps on day four.
They had banked a lead of only seven runs after Steven Finn finished with four wickets and took his Test career tally to 50 – the youngest Englishman to reach that landmark – in Sri Lanka’s 479 all out.
The match therefore appeared to come down to a straight second-innings shoot-out.
But despite England’s immediate setback, Cook (61no) and Jonathan Trott (58) settled nerves sufficiently to make a stalemate by far the likeliest outcome today in this three-match series which England currently lead 1-0.
England’s player of the year Trott and his fellow Ashes run machine Cook were the ideal men to stave off more trouble, after the hosts stumbled to 22 for three in their first innings.
So it proved too, in a century stand which calmly restored the premise that – even under murk and floodlight glare – there was not enough firepower in this Sri Lanka attack to open up a shot at a surprise victory.
Instead, it seemed, Strauss would have the luxury of deciding whether or not to push seriously for a win today.
One of precious few false shots from England’s second-wicket pair brought Trott four runs, edged through a vacant third slip off Dilhara Fernando, to take him to within one run of his 66-ball half-century.
Cook followed him to 50, from 86 balls. But by then Kevin Pietersen’s long sentence to wait with his pads on – as in Cardiff last week – was over.
Trott yorked himself in Rangana Herath’s first over, leaving Pietersen to block his first two balls against his nemesis left-arm spin.
The applause of a small crowd might have been read as supportive or ironic. But either way, Pietersen could be in no doubt he had a point to prove – and he took a small step towards doing so by closing out the last hour with Cook.
England’s pace bowlers, the object of much criticism for their faulty lines over the past two days, had earlier improved significantly.
They still did not get it right all the time but tested the Sri Lankans sufficiently for fair reward in favourable conditions under cloud cover.
Finn (four for 108) began inauspiciously, spearing his very first delivery of the day in a previously unfinished over from the pavilion end down the leg side.
But he corrected his line well enough to have Mahela Jayawardene edging an awkward ball on the back-foot defence to third slip, where Cook – who had dropped Tharanga Paranavitana in the cordon two days ago – this time clung on.
Jayawardene was gone one run short of his 50, and two balls later Chris Tremlett struck at the other end when Thilan Samaraweera edged some full-length outswing behind.
Sri Lanka appeared in danger after all of conceding a significant first-innings lead – but not so after a counter-attacking stand of 57 between Herath and Jayawardene.
Jayawardene had been timing the ball especially well. But he fell to a very good catch by Swann to give Finn his milestone in only his 12th Test.