Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd Test, Colombo, 2nd day August 5, 2006

Finally, a contest

Makhaya Ntini finally clicked into top gear with his first penetrative spells of the series © Getty Images

Sri Lanka's record-breaking heroics at the Sinhalese Sports Club seemed a galaxy away at the P Saravanamuttu Stadium on Saturday. The dressing room smiles, the jovial hand-clapping and the never-ending standing ovations were replaced with fraught stares and nervous tension as South Africa clawed their way right back into the series.

Mornings at the PSS are often crucial and, true to tradition, Sri Lanka stumbled early, their top order, drunk on confidence, cut to shreds by Makhaya Ntini, who finally clicked into top gear with his first penetrative spells of the series. Slanting the ball in and extracting steep bounce, Ntini created mayhem with the new ball and then returned for more before lunch. At one stage, Sri Lanka were on the critical list, 86 for 5 and trailing by 275 runs.

Ironically, it was the hero at the SSC that proved the most culpable today: Mahela Jayawardene. His careless slash at a long hop came just when the hosts were recovering from the loss of Upul Tharanga and Kumar Sangakkara, the first to an ugly pull and the second to some astute field-placing from the South Africa camp. At the SSC, Jayawardene was perfection: single-minded, patient and ruthless with his execution. Today he reaffirmed his class with a beautiful off-drive, but then let his mind wander with a horrible stroke that turned the initiative South Africa's way.

Fortunately, for Sri Lanka, one of their fledglings, the 19-year-old Chamara Kapugedera, launched a rescue act that that oozed class. His driving through the covers was imperious: balanced with effortless power. Sri Lanka's seniors, having witnessed his forceful strokeplay in the nets and detected the whiff of arrogance that all great batsman need, have been talking about his potential for some time and here he showcased it for us all, stealing back the momentum.

It contributed to a wonderfully absorbing afternoon of Test cricket, a proper contest unlike the one-way traffic at the SSC. First, South Africa claimed the upperhand and then Kapugedera, apparently fearless, snatched it back with Prasanna Jayawardene - who also justified his inclusion with a high-class cameo full of impish strokes. South Africa hit back before tea, Sri Lanka rallied, South Africa came storming back with the second new ball - it was one of those days.

Chaminda Vaas's fighting qualities also came to the fore in the final session, frustrating South Africa with the same adhesiveness and sound judgement that proved so crucial in England. While his bowling now lacks the incisiveness of his past, like the trundling Shaun Pollock, his batting technique is looking more solid than ever, and the 117 runs he added with Farveez Maharoof have provided Sri Lanka with a lifeline.

South Africa certainly won the day. After their 756-run mauling last weekend, they would have happily accepted a 46-run lead with 10 wickets intact at the start of play. But they will also be disappointed, aware that Kapugedera, Vaas and Maharoof had ruined what might just have been a golden day. As it is, with the pitch starting to crumble, both sides will be fancying their chances. Sri Lanka, though, relieved to have climbed out of their morning hole, will not want to chase too many in the first innings. All eyes will therefore turn to Muttiah Muralitharan: tomorrow, like at Trent Bridge in June, is one of those days when something truly special is needed from the wizard.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent