GALLE:England lost three wickets in four balls to leave Sri Lanka in sight of victory in the third and final cricket Test here on Saturday.
The tourists, needing to bat out the fifth day after following on 418 runs behind, slipped from a comfortable 200-2 to 202-5 by lunch in their second innings.
Opener Alastair Cook, unbeaten on 96, and the prospect of rain later in the afternoon were England's only hopes of saving the match.
Sri Lanka, who lead 1-0 in the series, have two more sessions -- weather permitting -- to force a 2-0 scoreline that will lift them to second place in the official Test rankings behind Australia.
The morning session was played in bright sunshine after heavy rain-washed out the post-lunch period on the fourth day, but bad weather has been forecast later in the afternoon.
Cook, the 22-year-old Essex opener, defied the Sri Lankan bowlers through the extended 90-minute session to move within four runs of his seventh Test century.
His 96 was the highest score by an England batsman in the series, surpassing captain Michael Vaughan's 87 in the drawn second Test in Colombo.
Both scores were more than the 81 England totalled in the first innings here, their lowest score against Sri Lanka.
Cook was, however, still lucky to be at the crease after he was dropped down the leg-side by wicket-keeper Prasanna Jayawardene off Lasith Malinga in the day's second over.
The overnight pair of Cook and Ian Bell put on 61 for the second wicket when Muttiah Muralitharan bowled Bell for 34 with a ball that kept low on the dual-paced wicket.
Kevin Pietersen (30) helped Cook put on 72 for the third wicket before a dramatic over from Muralitharan 15 minutes before lunch left England in tatters.
Muralitharan, Test cricket's most successful bowler, claimed his 722nd wicket when he beat Pietersen in the air and had the batsman flicking a low catch to Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene at short mid-wicket.
Two deliveries later, Paul Collingwood stepped out to play a flighted ball, missed the line and was easily stumped by wicket keeper Prasanna Jayawardene.
Ravi Bopara was dismissed first ball when he edged Muralitharan along the ground to the slip region where Mahela Jayawardene pounced on the ball and threw it back to the wicket-keeper to break the stumps.
Television replays showed that Bopara, who had taken a step forward hoping the ball had gone past Jayawardene, failed to regain the crease in time.
Matt Prior kept Cook company at lunch on zero.