Muttiah Muralitharan may have something else to say on the matter, but were it not for the cruel end to their valiant rearguard at Kandy, England could well have been going into next week's Galle decider with the series all square. For the second day running the team gave it their all in the field, then batted with poise and purpose to reach an early close with all their wickets intact. Accidents happen with alarming frequency in the subcontinent, but on the evidence of 186.5 overs of unstinting effort, England do not deserve to surrender the series tomorrow.
"We battled hard again, and we've sent a message that we can bat all day tomorrow and go to Galle to try and level the series," said Steve Harmison, the pick of England's attack. There has been precious little justice dealt out to England's players in this game, but Harmison's two wickets in today's spell did at least ensure that he emerged with figures that reflected the efforts he put into his performance. If yesterday was encouragement then today was confirmation. He has risen above his doubters, but now he needs to rise that little bit further and re-establish himself as the leader of England's attack.

Harmison is nothing if not a bundle of contradictions. He has a reputation for being soft-centred, particularly abroad, and yet he has not only played a full part in two of the toughest performances England have ever been put through on the subcontinent, but he's been the stand-out performer on each occasion. At Lahore in December 2005, Harmison reeled off 43 overs in a two-and-a-half day innings and picked up 1 for 155 for his troubles. Those measly figures, however, didn't include the retirement of Inzamam-ul-Haq with a damaged wrist, or Mohammad Yousuf's assertion that his first-day burst was "one of the best spells he had ever faced in his career."

England slumped to a crushing innings defeat in that particular match, but the blame was pinned squarely on the batsmen - as indeed will be the case at Colombo if tomorrow doesn't go according to the team's ubiquitous gameplan. Barring sensations, Harmison's work is done until Galle, and he intends to spend most of that time having sweet dreams of seething greentops. "I can go to bed tonight and sleep easy, and be happy with my day's work," he said. "I never want to prove anything to anybody, so long as I can look in the mirror at the end of the day and say I've given everything."

Body language is everything with Harmison. He'll never be one of nature's predators - he's too easily hunted for that - but when he's on song he acquires a momentum as irresistible as any of the greats that have preceded him. If he was a cartoon character, he'd be Wallace and Gromit's Were-Rabbit - a bundle of spring-heeled destruction, prone to flattening anything and everything in his path ... but only once in a full moon.

England's challenge over the next few days is to keep that dander up by any means possible, but to judge from the honest, open and relaxed manner with which he faced the media at the close of play, he's in the right frame of mind to continue his renaissance. "I feel I've shown how much I want to play for England," said Harmison. "I know people have doubted me in the past, but to bowl 41 overs in this heat - I can't do anything other than try my best and that's what I've done today."

It was an odd day for England, particularly during the closing stages of Sri Lanka's innings, when the game began to drift like a pedalo that had escaped its moorings. Harmison admitted that he kept himself going with the thought that it would all be over soon, although by the time Prasanna Jayawardene had extended his ninth-wicket stand to 31 overs, England's prospects were actually being improved with every minute that was eaten out of the game.

"If I'm being hyper-critical, there was a half-hour period when [Dilhara] Fernando and the wicketkeeper [Jayawardene] got in and we took our foot off the gas - not much but a little bit," said Harmison, "But I was happy for us, because he didn't know whether to stick or twist. He didn't know whether to play for his fifty, or his 70 not-out, or whether to protect Fernando. They ended up going at one or two an over for 16 overs, and the game was going nowhere."

In a bid to stay awake as the day plodded along, England harked back to their experience at Mumbai under Andrew Flintoff, and turned to the dressing-room iPod for inspiration. "We had an interesting lunchtime," said Harmison. "I thought we were in a disco for one minute, with music blaring, and all the batters dancing around like idiots - not me and the bowlers, I was asleep. But you've got to keep your spirits up. It's simple. If you die in a hole, you're going to get battered."

Harmison has done just that on occasions in the past, but right now he seems relaxed and ready for the challenges that he's being presented. The absence of his closest friend and confidante, Flintoff, doesn't seem to have affected him unduly - not least because he has forged a close bond with his Durham team-mate and bowling coach, Ottis Gibson - and Peter Moores' looser-knit, friendlier regime genuinely seems to suit him. As Vaughan said, when sizing up the runners and riders ahead of this match, England were looking at how the players were around one another, not just at how they were bowling in the nets.

"I was nervous going into this game, I'm not going to bullshit you," said Harmison. "I'd played six games in six months, and only finished half of them. But I've proved to people that my body's in good nick and all I can do is try my best. Hopefully I'll go to Galle and I'll be firing as much as I fired here. That's the big test."

He said it. Part one of Harmison's comeback has gone more swimmingly than the gargantuan scoreline can suggest. But that's only the beginning. If Murali doesn't put the mockers on their efforts, England have a series to salvage on the South Coast next week. And Harmison, happily, is gagging to take part.