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Honours even as Sri Lankan batsmen fight back

After their nightmare at Wanderers and a week marred by injury concerns, Sri Lanka rediscovered some batting form on the opening day of the second Castle Lager/MTN Test at SuperSport Park on Friday.

The game is evenly poised with Sri Lanka on 263 for six after being asked to bat first by South Africa captain Shaun Pollock under overcast skies.

Pollock's brave decision on a pitch that lacked the thick grass cover seen at Wanderers was influenced by the policy of fielding five fast bowlers as the home side resisted the temptation to play left-arm spinner Claude Henderson. Whether that will prove to be an error of judgment depends on how the South African bowlers perform tomorrow morning. They need to mop up the tail quickly.

Their most pressing concern will be removal of the obdurate Hashan Tillakaratne, who reacted to the disappointment of being left out from the one-day squad with a fine unbeaten 82. The 35-year-old left-hander was dropped once on 35, but otherwise played impeccably in a four-hour vigil that has so far produced 15 boundaries.

Had Sri Lanka won the toss they would have batted, according to coach Dav Whatmore, who was pleased to see his top order fight-back after their woeful display in the opening Test. Nevertheless, he was disappointed by the fact that his top four all failed to capitalise on good starts.

"I was pleased with the amount of runs that we scored in the day but was disappointed by those who got starts and didn't go on," Whatmore said.

"The game is fairly evenly poised now and we have to carry on and get as many runs as possible tomorrow - this could be a very interesting game."

South Africa admitted afterwards that they would have preferred to have bowled out Sri Lanka in a day. They may now be ruing their decision to bowl first.

However, if their bowlers had shown the discipline that they displayed at Wanderers then the plan could have worked again. As it was they bowled too many loose deliveries, a fact illustrated by the 42 boundaries scored in the day.

Having inserted the opposition they needed to make early inroads, however, Sri Lankan openers Marvan Atapattu and Jehan Mubarak weathered the first hour of the morning, playing and missing on occasion but looking increasingly comfortable as the session progressed.

However, soon after the drinks break the in-form Atapattu - captaining the side for the first time in a Test - was caught off his glove for 17 as he tried to pull a short ball from Jacques Kallis.

Jehan Mubarak, drafted into the side after Sanath Jayasuriya damaged his right ankle during a game of football on Tuesday, and number three batsman Kumar Sangakkara reacted positively to the dismissal, adding 56 in 73 balls.

Mubarak, playing in his first game of the tour and only his second Test, was particularly impressive. The 21-year-old has a poor first class record, averaging just 28.01 after 29 games, and was a surprise choice for this tour, but he showed sufficient class during his innings to suggest he does have a Test future.

Born in Washington and the son of a highly regarded scientist, he looked composed and comfortable at the crease. The feature of his innings was the manner in which he left the ball expertly, but he was also quick to seize on any opportunity to score, especially when the South African bowlers erred on to his pads or dropped short.

Sangakkara was the more aggressive of the pair and especially strong off the back foot as he raced to 35 from just 38 balls with five fours. However, just when Sri Lanka looked like they would survive the first session with the loss of just one wicket, Sangakkara was caught at first slip trying to force a short delivery from Andrew hall through the off-side.

After the interval, Mubarak moved to within two runs of a deserved maiden fifty, but perished when Pollock - the pick of the South African bowlers - produced a well-directed outswinger that caught the edge of the left-handers bat.

With Sri Lanka on 108 for three another middle-order collapse appeared possible, but Mahela Jayawardene (44) and Hashan Tillakaratne (82*) played themselves in watchfully and gradually built a crucial 81 partnership.

As the pair raised the tempo during the second hour before tea the South Africans slipped back onto the defensive, testing the batsmen's patience by bowling a large percentage of deliveries wide of the off-stump.

After tea Pollock made the breakthrough, dismissing Jayawardene with a good length delivery that the right-hander dragged on to his stumps to leave the Sri Lankans on 189 for four.

Russel Arnold, moved back down into the middle order after bagging a pair at Wanderers, once again looked out of form before being caught at the wicket after 28 unconvincing minutes at the crease.

With Sri Lanka's fragile lower order now exposed, Tillakaratne correctly judged that the time had come to take the initiative - too often in his second coming he has failed to take responsibility when batting with the tail.

Hitting three boundaries in an over off Kallis and keeping the scoreboard moving he took the pressure off a nervous Hasantha Fernando (24) who had started his Test career with a pair at the Wanderers. The pair added 54 valuable runs before Pollock took the second new ball and Fernando was caught off the shoulder of his bat.