Match in the balance after Prior fifty
After their poor final session yesterday evening, England urgently needed a better second day at Colombo in order to stay in the match. And, thanks to Matt Prior and Ryan Sidebottom, they battled hard to revive a fledgling first innings before nipping out both Sri Lanka openers. But the relative ease with which the stonewalling Michael Vandort and Mahela Jaywardene combated Steve Harmison and Monty Panesar, England's two weapons of varying destruction, has left the match intriguingly poised going into the third day.
Sidebottom had a day to remember, however, and not solely for his new-ball spell late in the day, which included the huge wicket of Kumar Sangakkara. It was with the bat that Sidebottom impressed again, adding 17 with Prior in an eighth-wicket stand of 74 to heave England's total to 351. It was still 49 short of Michael Vaughan's hopeful target of 400, but represented a significant recovery from the perilous position of 272 for 7 in which England found themselves, after Paul Collingwood and Stuart Broad departed in quick succession to the probing Chaminda Vaas and a spirited Lasith Malinga.
Prior, who took a superb one-handed catch to his left in the final session, batted magnificently. Whereas Collingwood and Alastair Cook (both of whom made fifties) never batted with the greatest of conviction, Prior was both solid in defence and convincing in his attacking strokes. His 63 at Kandy nearly took England to a famous draw, but today's knock represented a different kind of pressure in bolstering the total, rather than clotting the wounds of tumbling wickets. He succeeded, but only thanks to the support Sidebottom gave him who has a touch of the Ashley Giles stickability about him at No.8. In fact, this was England's highest eighth wicket stand since Giles and Kevin Pietersen put on 109 at The Oval in 2005.
Prior's valiant innings was laced with orthodox, attractive and powerful drives - not to mention an impressive, inventive reverse-sweep for four off Muttiah Muralitharan - and ended with his first genuine slog. His glovework has been next to faultless throughout this tour, and allied with his fiercely determined batting is cementing his place as England's first-choice keeper.
Muralitharan mopped up the tail to pick up his 62nd five-for, and England built upon Prior's determination by removing Upul Tharanga and Sangakkara. Tharanga was drawn into a drive outside his off stump - Prior snaffling a very sharp chance to his left - while Sangakkara was out-done by a beauty. It was the first time in seven innings that he has failed to make fifty or more, and Sidebottom celebrated like a Christmas lottery winner. Sri Lanka were 27 for 2.
Supporting Sidebottom was Broad, making his debut and taking the new ball. In an impressive start to his Test career, he reeled off five overs for just six runs and was consistently on the mark - or rather too close to the mark in the eyes of Aleem Dar, the umpire, who warned him twice for encroaching onto the pitch. A third rap on the knuckles and he'll not be allowed to bowl for the rest of the innings which, especially considering the unpredictably of Harmison, is rather a concern.
Like Sidebottom and Broad, Harmison was economical though too short and wide to Vandort, in particular, who played him with ease - bar the occasional (and all too rare) well-directed bouncer. Vandort and Jayawardene resisted England's charge impressively, with Vandort cutting Harmison off the back foot and Jayawardene building with singles and nudges to midwicket. Vandort brought up his fourth Test fifty from 91 balls as the pair's partnership grew to a stabilising 83 at stumps. As typifies Sri Lanka when they play at home, they simply refuse to lie down and give up.
With Panesar yet to really threaten, and Harmison showing inevitable signs of rust, England have a lot of hard work ahead of them, but after two days the match is nicely poised.
Will Luke is a staff writer at Cricinfo