ONLY twice has a bigger first-innings deficit been overturned in a Test match at Headingley than the one that faced Sri Lanka here.
After taking the last four England wickets for 45 runs in the opening hour, the home side scoring 365 in reply to 257, Sri Lanka embarked on their second innings 108 adrift and with seemingly scant hope of saving the game – let alone winning it.
The two bigger turnarounds in Leeds were the 1981 Ashes Test, when Ian Botham and Bob Willis ran riot after England followed-on, 227 behind, and the 2001 Ashes Test, when Mark Butcher played out of his skin after Australia declared, 314 ahead.
For their part, Sri Lanka have only once won after conceding a larger lead, defeating Pakistan by 42 runs at Faisalabad in 1995 after trailing, on that occasion, by 110.
At the end of a hot and humid third day, however, a day when cloud cover made for good headache weather, it was England who were facing an unlikely headache after Sri Lanka turned the game on its head.
Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, the old firm playing for the final time in a Test match in England, threatened to take their leave in the best way possible by helping their side to a famous success.
Sri Lanka have never won a Test series in England, and few would have given them much hope of winning this one when England were 311-3 on Saturday following a maiden hundred for Sam Robson and a splendid half-century from Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance.
But after England lost their last seven wickets for 54 runs, carelessly surrendering a position of supremacy, Jayawardene (55 not out) and Sangakkara (55) chipped away at their fragile confidence to help the tourists to 214-4, 106 in front, with the match, improbably, back in the balance.
Moeen Ali, England’s most successful bowler with 2-26, concurred with the view of Ruwan Kalpage, the Sri Lanka fielding coach, that 225 would represent a competitive chase for the hosts.
“I wouldn’t disagree with that,” said Moeen, the Worcestershire batsman/off-spinner. “We’ve got batters who’ve been playing really well and we’ll be confident chasing whatever really.
“If we can have a good first session on day four, we’ve seen on this pitch that you can lose wickets in clusters.”
In front of a 7,000 crowd, a figure that was slightly better than Yorkshire had expected, Sri Lanka enjoyed an excellent day.
They made light work of England’s lower-order, which folded in a hurry after the home side resumed on 320-6.
Chris Jordan was first to go, brilliantly caught by Jayawardene at second slip, diving in front of Sangakkara at first, off the bowling of Shaminda Eranga. Stuart Broad fell in the next over when he pushed forward at Angelo Mathews and was caught in the gully, Mathews striking again when he bowled Liam Plunkett with a delivery that seamed back sharply on his way to a career-best 4-44.
Eranga polished off the innings when James Anderson fended back to him, Eranga finishing with 4-93 as Matt Prior was left stranded on 27.
Sri Lanka had a large slice of luck at the start of their second innings when Jordan spilled Dimuth Karunaratne off Anderson from the final delivery of the third over.
It was a straightforward catch at second slip, but Jordan got his hands into a horrid position and the chance was lost.
England bowled poorly in the 50 minutes before lunch, when they were generally too short, and they were not much better in the first hour of the afternoon session.
It took the introduction of Plunkett to prise the breakthrough with the score on 40 in the 21st over, Kaushal Silva drawn forward by a fine delivery that nestled in wicketkeeper Prior’s gloves. With the cricket attritional, there was a moment of welcome hilarity when Plunkett’s second ball to Sangakkara, the new batsman, was so wide that it completely missed the cut strip on its way to the boundary.
It was a rare moment of profligacy from Plunkett, who later ended a second-wicket stand of 53 between Karunaratne and Sangakkara when he had the former caught behind down the leg-side.
The wicket brought together Sangakkara and Jayawardene, and they used all their nous to build on a solid start.
Sangakkara’s cover drives were a joy to behold, his half-century his seventh in succession in Tests to equal the record of Everton Weekes, Andy Flower and Shivnarine Chanderpaul.
A hundred seemed inevitable but Sangakkara fell to Ali when he misjudged a straight delivery and was plumb lbw.
Sangakkara wasted a review challenging the decision, which ended a stand of 79 in 24 overs with Jayawardene.
Ali struck again two balls later, bowling Lahiru Thirimanne with a beautiful delivery that squared him up before striking middle stump. It left Sri Lanka 176-4 – effectively 68-4 – and brought England and the crowd back to life.
Further breakthroughs at that stage could have done for Sri Lanka, but Jayawardene and Mathews fought through 13.4 overs to the close on a day when three overs went unbowled.
Jayawardene, who has faced 123 balls and hit five fours, was not at his most fluent but was certainly at his most competitive, while Mathews was typically tenacious.
For England, much could depend on the new ball due in seven overs.
A fascinating finish lies ahead.
Scoreboard: Page 10.