AN unusual thing happened at Emirates Riverside today – a competitive day of Test cricket broke out. Sri Lanka’s display of batting resolve might have come too late to save either the game or the series, but it at least prevented a repeat of the complete capitulation that saw the tourists thrashed inside three days at Headingley.

A fourth day will be required this time around, a positive development for Durham, who can look forward to some Bank Holiday income that had looked unlikely this morning. Trailing by 88 with five second-innings wickets intact, it is not inconceivable that Sri Lanka could even make England bat again.

The hosts only took seven wickets today, two of which came within the opening four overs as they wrapped up Sri Lanka’s first innings with a minimum of fuss.

Things were much tougher from that point on, with Angelo Mathews, Kaushal Silva and Dinesh Chandimal leading an impressive rearguard action. If Sri Lanka’s batsmen had displayed similar application in their previous three innings, a competitive series might have emerged.

As it is, and even taking into account today’s hard-fought battle between bat and ball, this has not been a good advert for Test cricket, with two largely uncompetitive matches being played to a backdrop of half-empty stands.

The poor crowds at Chester-le-Street will have been of particular concern to the hierarchy at Durham – today’s attendance of 8,825 meant the ground was just over half-full - and having been left off the Test rota that has been announced to the end of the 2019 season, there must be a temptation to withdraw completely from the battle to stage five-day matches in the future.

It is hard to argue that Durham have got their money’s worth after shelling out more than £900,000 to stage the only Test to be played in the North-East this year, with the timing of the game in late May, the proximity to last week’s match just down the road at Headingley and the weak standard of opposition conspiring to keep spectators away from Emirates Riverside.

It is not just Durham that are struggling to sell out Test matches of course, and while Sri Lanka’s belated display of resistance was welcome, this remains a mismatch between teams with vastly different levels of experience and expertise.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan has argued for Test cricket to be split into three divisions of four teams, with play-offs to decide promotion and relegation between the various leagues, and while traditionalists will decry the potential effect that would have on historic series such as the Ashes, it is surely time to do something to freshen up the five-day game.

The growth of Twenty20 and the advent of the IPL means countries such as Sri Lanka are losing interest in Test cricket, although their chances of springing a surprise in the current series were hardly helped by the ECB’s inexplicable decision to hold the first two Tests of the summer at Northern venues where conditions were always going to make batting difficult.

Sri Lanka’s batsmen looked completely ill at ease in their first three innings of the series, and when Stuart Broad and James Anderson claimed early wickets yesterday, the tourists became the first Test side since 1958 to be dismissed for under 120 in three successive innings.

At that stage, it looked all but inevitable that England would wrap up another three-day win, and a swift resolution still looked likely when, having once again enforced the follow-on, the hosts reduced their opponents to 100-3 in the first half of the afternoon session.

Chris Woakes tempted Dimuth Karunaratne into a rash drive that flew to Joe Root at second slip, Anderson produced a cracker that moved away just enough to persuade Kusal Mendis to nibble behind, and Moeen Ali claimed his first wicket of the game as he tied up Lahiru Thirimanne with a turning delivery that clipped the batsman’s off stump.

A wholesale capitulation looked inevitable, but to their credit Silva and Mathews knuckled down to build Sri Lanka’s biggest partnership of the series as they both claimed half-centuries.

Silva’s was the more patient knock, with the opener finally discovering how to leave the ball effectively and avoid the temptation to be too aggressive outside the off-stump.

Mathews was more flamboyant, taking a special liking to Ali’s spin as he hammered a huge six over the long-off boundary and plundered 30 of his first 50 runs from the off-spinner.

Aside from his wicket-taking delivery, Ali was unable to extract much turn from a typically unhelpful Riverside pitch, and with Steven Finn lacking any kind of rhythm at the other end, there was a two-hour spell where England found themselves on the back foot for the first time all series.

It seems churlish to criticise anyone involved in a team that will almost certainly complete a resounding series victory later today, but Finn’s place should be reassessed ahead of the final Test at Lord’s. The Middlesex bowler appears to have lost much of his pace as he attempts to rediscover his best form, and there is a compelling argument for handing Jake Ball a debut once the series is won.

In fairness to Finn, he was the player that broke Sri Lanka’s fourth-wicket resistance, although Silva’s departure for 60 owed as much to the batsman’s unexpected loss of composure as to anything that came out of the bowler’s hand. Looking to pull the ball behind leg, Silva got himself into an almighty mess as he skied a catch to Jonny Bairstow.    

Mathews continued to press on without him, but with the pitch beginning to show signs of deterioration, he perished with a century in sight. Perhaps spooked by a ball that barely left the ground, he pushed too hard at Anderson’s next delivery and edged behind to give Bairstow his seventh catch of the game.

England still had an hour or so to wrap up victory, but Chandimal plundered an unbeaten 54 that included some lusty blows off Ali to ensure hopes of a swift conclusion were dashed.

Earlier, it had taken England just 21 balls to wrap up the Sri Lankan first innings, with Broad striking in the first over of the morning as Suranga Lakmal feathered a catch behind and Anderson claiming his third wicket of the innings as Thirimanne miscued a steepling catch to Nick Compton.