Jos Buttler pulled England out of trouble with a controlled 64 on day 3 in Colombo to leave the tourists on the verge of a 3-0 series whitewash against Sri Lanka.
England lost a flurry of early wickets in the first hour before, at 39-4, Buttler and Ben Stokes steadied the ship to steer England to 230 all out, leaving the hosts an unlikely 327 for victory.
Sri Lanka, who had earlier let Stokes off twice in calamitous fashion when wristspinner Lakshan Sandakan had been ruled to have overstepped having got England’s allrounder out on two separate occasions before lunch.
As always in this Test series, the sun shone in the morning, with no sign of the huge storms that usually bring play to an abrupt end at about 5pm each evening.
England, fresh from their incredible turnaround on day 2, were hoping to solidify their first innings lead and bat through today to put themselves out of sight.
Keaton Jennings strode out to the middle with purpose, himself off the back of a heroic fielding display on Saturday where he snatched four catches at short leg.
Unfortunately for him, he was made to stride straight back to the pavilion a minute later as he missed a straight one from Dilruwan Perera first ball of the day and was plumb LBW.
And so, day 3 began exactly as day 2 finished, with wickets tumbling.
Six overs later, Rory Burns made exactly the same mistake, and he joined Jennings back in the pavilion having been dismissed LBW Perera for 7.
Jonny Bairstow, despite unsurprisingly looking sharp and positive after his hundred in the first innings, played nicely for 15 before he became Perera’s third victim of the morning when he played with a closed face to the onside, where Kaushal Silva, on as a sub fielder at short-leg, snaffled a sharp chance.
Joe Root inexplicably got a leading edge on another innocuous delivery from left-arm spinner Malinda Pushpakumara, who dived brilliantly to his left to take a difficult caught and bowled, and England had lost four wickets in the first hour.
At drinks they were 42 for 4, and suddenly Sri Lanka were back in the Test match.
The extraordinary thing about both teams’ batting collapses is the lack of assistance the bowlers were extracting from the pitch.
The idea that this part of the subcontinent turns square after the first day or two has simply not been the case here.
There is a certain amount of grip off the surface, and the cracks had opened up overnight, but there was nothing to suggest the statistics that had come out of the evening session yesterday and the first hour today.
Thirteen wickets were lost for only 106 runs in the space of 32.2 manic overs. Most of them had fallen to deliveries that went straight on rather than turned dangerously; perhaps the perceived landmines out there were playing on batsmen’s minds more than the reality.
Stokes and Buttler finally found some semblance when they came together to steady the ship for the fifth wicket.
Two of the most powerful strokemakes in the game, in the past twelve months they have both matured into fine Test batsmen, capable of playing straight to the good deliveries, but unleashing their powerful aggression to anything that strays in line or length.
The run rate rarely dips below four an over with such men at the crease, and the pair pulled England out of the mire by quickly taking England to 90-4, the fifty partnership coming up in only 56 balls, before Stokes, on 32, thought he had holed out straight to extra cover off the bowling of Sandakan, only to be reprieved by the umpires calling him back after video replays had shown Sandakan overstepping.
A huge let off for Stokes in what could be a huge moment in deciding this game.
If England are to continue on their path of positive, aggressive cricket, Stokes and Buttler in the middle order are the definition of their new identity.
Both have an aura about them which worries opposition captains, their ability to move through the gears makes them prize scalps early in their innings, but if they can continue to bat diligently and play within themselves when the situation requires it, they both have all the makings of world top-ten batsman; and considering a fifty-plus average player in Root walks in before either of them, England’s middle order is beginning to look like the genuine article.
Stokes used up another life when Sandakan, in what surely has to be the a first for a slow bowler, again overstepped when the allrounder prodded at one and edged to first slip. Sri Lanka have failed badly at getting their basics right in the this series.
Stokes knows he will not get such let-offs in the major outings in 2019 when both the World Cup and the Ashes come to England, but for now he could share a smile with Buttler as they both walked off for lunch with their wickets somehow in tact, their side 110 for 4 at the interval, now 206 ahead.
Such instances, will of course bring up the debate of whether umpires are now adjudicating no-balls in Test cricket efficiently.
As it transpired, Sandakan had bowled no-balls on 40% of his deliveries before lunch, and yet the only ones that were called were the two wicket taking deliveries, and both on advice of the television replay.
Umpires are simply not looking for front foot no-balls anymore, and although there’s a valid argument to say spinners should never overstep, surely some consistency should be in place so as not to punish a bowler when only the wicket taking deliveries are checked.
Stokes failed to make Sri Lanka pay for his two gifts, and was on his way by the fourth over after lunch, as he miscued a straight drive straight to Pushpakumara at long on to give Perera his fourth victim of the day, and in out-of-form Moeen Ali who averaged only 11 in the series thus far, came to join Buttler, who by now had reached his twelfth Test fifty, off just fifty-nine balls, as England’s lead began to look unassailable.
Buttler, incidentally, is now averaging close to fifty since his re-introduction to the Test arena back in May against Pakistan.
He has shown an incredible ability to read both the conditions and the match situation better than any other England batsman, and is capable of adapting his game to suit whatever scenario he’s faced with.
Despite only passing three figures once before today, his place is now cemented in this England team as a specialist batsman indefinitely.
Since the shake-up of England’s selection committee, the one man Ed Smith put his reputation on the line for in his fist week in office was Buttler; how he has been repaid.
As the afternoon wore on, England’s lead passed 250 and Sri Lanka, frankly, looked to have given up on containing England and were simply going through the motions, offering England easy singles seemingly everywhere.
Their earlier no-ball calamity had taken a lot out of their weary legs, and captain Suranga Lakmal cut a lonely figure, unable to inspire his troops for one last time in the series.
Buttler will feel aggrieved not to have taken such an opportunity to get to his second test century, as he fell from a terrible delivery Sandakan and was stumped for 64.
The Lancashire man tried to use his feet to the left arm wristspinner, but when the ball squirted down the leg side and out of reach, he immediately tried to turn and get his bat back into the crease, but was not quick enough for Niroshan Dickwella behind the stumps who gleefully whipped the bails off with Buttler six inches short.
The umpires yet again went to the 3rd umpire to check the front foot, but to the relief of Sri Lanka (and frankly, out sympathy, everyone else), the ball was legal and Buttler was gone.
England were already 264 ahead by that stage, which already felt enough, although they still wanted to press on.
Moeen was not the man for the job, however, and when he clipped one to de Silva at slip for 22, he completed a poor series with the bat in which he scored only 78 runs, averaging 13.
Not the answer England were looking for at number three certainly; fortunately for him his bowling will see his place in the team assured for the West Indies in January – the debate will be where he bats.
For me, Ben Foakes looks far more consistent with the bat and less likely to infuriate his supporters, and should be locked in as number 7 and keeper.
Moeen should stay as the maverick at number 8 capable of bonus runs with the tail on occasion.
Foakes and Adil Rashid spent the rest of the afternoon session accumulating the plethora of singles on offer; England’s lead passed 300 shortly before tea, and they were 210 for 7 at the break, with Foakes and Rashid both not out, 20 and 21 respectively.
The visitors were making serene progress, and the question was now whether Sri Lanka had the energy to find the last three England wickets or were happy to just contain and wait for the declaration.
The first of England’s remaining wickets fell soon after tea, Rashid eventually caught behind to Pushpakumara for 24 on review; Dickwella, after so many enthusiastic yet ultimately incorrect DRS reviews finally got one right and Sri Lanka had their eighth wicket.
Stuart Broad then tamely lobbed one to short leg for only a single to give Pushpakumara his second, before Foakes tied to get as many as he could muster with last man Jack Leach.
Foakes has finished the series as England’s top run-scorer, which after being called up as an injury replacement for the tour must delight England’s new wicketkeeper, who feels like a dead cert for England moving forward.
He looks like a composed and capable top order batsman, yet has also proved his ability to bat nicely with the tail and add valuable extra runs as the innings comes to a close.
Today he only managed 15 runs for the tenth wicket as he finished not out 36, before Leach was caught behind to Perera his seventh five wicket haul of his career as he picked up 5-88.
England were eventually all out for 230 half way through the evening session, and Sri Lanka needed 327 to win, which would be the highest chase ever recorded at the Sinhalese Sports Club.
The tourists had, weather dependent, over an hour to try and make inroads into the Sri Lankan top order.
Broad and off-spinner Moeen were the men charged with opening the bowling for the final time in the series.
Moeen presumably given the new cherry because of the two left handers that Sri Lanka have opened with here, Root holding back Leach for his favoured right handed victims.
It was the slow-bowler who made the first breakthrough, catching the edge of Gunathilaka (6) which was easily taken by Stokes at first slip in the sixth over of the day.
Broad struggled to find his length and was replaced in the eighth over by Leach, who only took just three deliveries to make an impact; de Silva played forward, a huge LBW should was turned down by umpire Ravi, but on review, the Barmy Army cheers went up as the three red signals from the replay screen put Sri Lanka two wickets down.
Karunaratne was unable to complete a fourth half century in a row when he was comprehensively bowled by Moeen for 23, and with Sri Lanka 34 for 3 with another half an hour still available, England smelt blood.
For the first time in this match, there was no 5pm thunderstorm to curtail play (although the daily storm did still hit Colombo, just later in the evening), and with the extra half hour of play England managed to prize out Sri Lanka’s most dangerous player Angelo Mathews, who attempted to hook a short ball from Stokes and could only spoon to Broad at square leg who took an excellent diving catch inches off the grass.
Sri Lanka finished day three on 53 for four, still requiring 274 more for an unlikely victory which should see England take the series 3-0, an amazing achievement for a team so highly unfancied in these conditions.
The hosts looked ready to throw in the towel in the final session here, and they will have to take a long look at the way they have played on pitches with few demons in them.
England will arrive on Monday needing six wickets for the series whitewash.