A maiden Test century from Gary Ballance helped England to a second innings lead of 389 against Sri Lanka, as they closed day four of the first Test at Lord’s 267-8.
The Yorkshire batsman was 104* at the close of play, after helping the home side overcome a succession of early wickets to post a competitive deficit, which the tourists will strive to hunt down when they come to the crease tomorrow morning.
Alastair Cook declined declaration, instead allowing his team to continue building the victory target that the tourists will chase. With only two wickets remaining, it won’t be long before England take to the outfield again, and it will be a race against time to take 10 wickets.
England began the penultimate day with a ball in hand, and the morning session also provided another centurion to be added to the honours board.
Sri Lanka captain, Angelo Mathews, progressed from an overnight score of 79* to record a hundred which helped close in on England’s opening innings score of 575-9 declared.
The first wicket of the day was claimed by James Anderson, who bowled Rangana Herath (2) to end with the side’s best figures of 3-93.
His wicket haul was matched by Test debutant, Chris Jordan. The Sussex seamer took his third dismissal when Nuwan Pradeep hit his own wicket, to leave him with 3-102.
Before that, Liam Plunkett finally displaced the real threat, when he had Mathews trapped LBW for 102. The skipper had batted with the tail, but failed to find much support and resilience from his bowlers at the crease.
Sri Lanka were all out for 453 with the fall of Pradeep, leaving them 122 runs shy of England.
Just like in the first innings, England were guilty of giving away too many early wickets. Despite showing good early signs in their partnership of 46, openers, Cook and Sam Robson, again fell short of what was required of them.
The hosts’ captain was the first to fall for 28 when he was caught behind by Prasanna Jayawardene off the bowling of Shaminda Eranga.
The seamer also sent Robson (19) and Ian Bell (9) back to pavilion, which once again brought Joe Root to the crease with his side reeling at 69-3.
There was to be no repeat of the diminutive batsman’s first innings double hundred though, as he was trapped LBW for 15 against the bowling of Herath.
Spin was the most potent weapon of the day up and down the Lord’s slope, which may make England lament their decision not to pick a frontline spinner when they bowl on day five.
Herath then bowled Moeen Ali to put Peter Moores’ side in trouble at 102-5. And when Matt Prior (16) trundled away from the middle, England had advanced only as far as 121-6.
Despite a strong first innings lead, Sri Lanka were getting themselves into the game, until Ballance came to prominence.
The 24-year-old - playing in only his second Test - had been at the crease since the loss of Cook, but his resilience could have implied that had acquired a lot more international experience.
His 188-ball unbeaten stand could prove to be an integral factor in determining victory on the final day. In the evening session, Ballance received help from the lower order, who scored at a quick rate to press home England’s advantage.
Jordan exhibited his all-round attributes with a 35 that included five boundaries. He was replaced by Stuart Broad when he also became a victim of Herath.
Broad scored 24 from 18 balls before being caught and bowled by Sri Lanka’s premier spinner. Despite increasing the potential victory total for the visitors to chase, Cook still refrained from calling his batsmen back to the dressing room.
Instead, Liam Plunkett (2*) played a supporting role to allow Ballance to achieve his first three figure Test total, in just his second match.
Ballance reached the close of play on 104* with his Yorkshire teammate unbeaten alongside him.
On the final day, an early declaration is expected - if it doesn’t come overnight - and then England’s bowlers have the challenge of claiming 10 wickets.
As it showed on day four, wickets can tumble in quick succession, but Cook will need some help from his part-time spin bowlers if England are to go 1-0 in this two-match series.