Cardiff produces another thriller
Two years ago we had the Great Escape. The second Miracle of Cardiff was every bit as impossible to believe.
Midway through the final afternoon it was still raining. England were 92 runs ahead, waiting to see if they might possibly get on for a couple of overs before the inevitable early finish so Ian Bell could complete his century.
Under the covers was a pitch apparently as devoid of life as the moon and nowhere near as dusty. Sri Lanka had stuck on 400 in their first innings without their best player even making a contribution. The rain kept falling. Just shake hands on the draw, we begged them, so we can all go home.
The game finished early alright. Two baffling, thrilling hours after Bell had marched off, England had sealed one of the most remarkable, preposterous wins that they have ever been involved in.
If that sounds like hyperbole, you weren't there. Almost no-one was.
England celebrate their remarkable victory over Sri Lanka in first Test - photo: Reuters.
At tea Sri Lanka were 33-2 and cruising. Half an hour later they were 52-8 and gone, flushed down the gurgler in such rapid succession that they almost went hand in hand.
Even when Chris Tremlett struck twice at the top of the innings it shouldn't have been possible. James Anderson, England's best bowler of the last few years, was off the field injured. The previous six wickets had seen more than 500 runs stuck on the board.
So why was it? Pressure, heavy as an elephant, squeezing down on Sri Lankan shoulders as nerves turned to panic and then calamity.
The key moment was the dismissal of Mahela Jayawardene, almost 10,000 Test runs to his name, send packing by a jaffa of an outswinger from Tremlett after being softened up by the short stuff and set up by the inswinger.
Mild interest in the commentary boxes suddenly turned to rapt attention. Welshmen with an eye and an ear on Swansea's progress in the Championship play-off final at Wembley put radios and smart phones down and fixed their attention entirely on the middle.
When Kumar Sangakkara fell to Graeme Swann, pouched by Andrew Strauss at slip to make it 43-5, the win felt possible. When Maharoof and first innings centurion Prasanna Jayawardene followed within five balls, probable rolled into town.
Two years ago England had somehow snatched a draw from Australia thanks to an implausible last wicket stand between Anderson and Monty Panesar. Would Rangana Herath and Thisara Perera find inspiration in their deeds and derring-do at the death?
Herath swiped across the line like a man playing beach cricket to be trapped lbw by Swann. Bell produced the catch of the summer to snag Perera at short leg.
In the blink of a disbelieving eye it was over. In all, eight wickets went down for 49 runs in a fraction more than 12 overs.
It was the 10th shortest innings in Test history. England have been involved in seven of those, which will be no surprise to anyone who has watched them over down the nerve-jangled years.
For a finale that will be remember for so many years, the first-hand accounts will be somewhat thin on the ground.
At one stage before lunch there were 19 paying punters in the stands. Even by the end, when the gates had been thrown open and any passing joggers and dog-walkers invited in for free, there were still no more than a thousand to witness it. Give it a year or so, mind you, and that number will probably have tripled.
Swann finished with four for 16 off his seven overs, dramatically finding turn and menace from nowhere in the way great spinners suddenly can when the trap door starts to creak under a panicked batting order.
Tremlett was almost more impressive, his 4-40 including three of the visitors's top four in the batting order, with his two wickets in the first three overs greasing the floor under Sri Lankan spikes.
For a man sometimes derided as a gentle giant he put together a spell that sang with aggression and danger, charging in with foot down and dander up. The Sri Lankans quaked and then capitulated.
This four-man England attack, a fair few wise men were saying, was all wrong. You can't win Test matches on flat pitches with four bowlers. They were right. You only need three.
For all the opprobrium that will be thrown at Sri Lanka after their knock-kneed collapse, equal amounts of praise should be heaped on England.
Here, in under a session, was the encapsulation of why they are now a team to be feared and admired - in a seemingly impossible situation, shorn of their leading bowler, in a match that everyone had written off, somehow finding a way to win against any odds or expectations.
This is what the great Australian teams used to do: snatch victories from the back teeth of draws, never mind the jaws.
It is also, in a nutshell, what makes Test cricket like no other game we have.
What other sport can offer a twist so dramatic so late in a tale? A match that seemed to sum up how contradictory and pointless the sport can be - playing on for a meaningless two hours, in an empty ground, when the result has been obvious for days - instead provided a peerless demonstration of why you can never ever quite look away.
Four and a half days of tedium, and then a flabbergasting finish. Next time they have a Test in Cardiff we'll know exactly what to expect.