Sri Lanka braised Michael Vaughan and Alastair Cook as though they were preparing the definitive casserole yesterday afternoon, believing that the hours spent stewing under a hot sun would drain the England openers of the resolve needed to keep the series alive. But Vaughan and Cook held firm when Sri Lanka finally declared their second innings closed on 548 for 9 a total that gave the hosts a first-innings lead of 197 taking their side to 48 without loss, a start that gives them an outside chance of saving the second Test.
Days such as the last two are the reason why Test cricket is so aptly named. Standing in the middle of a hot, humid field for 187 overs is not much fun. It tests the fitness, mental strength, ambition and professionalism of a player. But they are the periods of play when captains and coaches can make true judgements on the character of players in their side, and despite the match situation this England team came through it, largely, with credit.
England drifted for an hour between lunch and tea, while Prasanna Jayawardene and Dilhara Fernando added 98 invaluable runs for the ninth wicket. It was a partnership that ended any hope the tourists had of completing an unexpected victory. But for the remainder of the day they approached their work with eagerness and energy. A similar approach today could give them the opportunity to level the three-Test series in next week's final match in Galle.
Monty Panesar, England's left-arm spinner, bowled most overs but nobody worked harder than Stephen Harmison, playing in his first Test for six months. Harmison sent down 42 energy-sapping overs and fully deserved the three wickets he claimed. The 29-year-old would not have appreciated it at the time, but this was just the sort of workout he needed after spending so much time out injured.
Harmison's hostility gave England their first wicket of the morning when Jehan Mubarak punched a well-directed short ball to Ian Bell at slip. It was the start England needed but Mahela Jayawardene, the batsman they most wanted to see the back of, was still there. Mahela was easing his way to a third double-century when he top-edged an attempted slog-sweep at Panesar straight up in the air. Paul Collingwood took the simplest of catches at slip.
Stuart Broad will not forget his debut in a hurry. In his fledgling career he is unlikely to have placed his hands on a third new ball, but at least he did not leave wicketless. Chaminda Vaas became his first scalp when he gloved an attempted pull at a short ball to Bell, once again at slip.
The hat-trick of wickets reduced Sri Lanka to 425 for 7. The hosts, with a lead of 74, were still in a strong position but England suddenly held hopes of getting back into the Test. This desire strengthened after lunch when Lasith Malinga was lbw to Panesar, but they were ended by a bizarre partnership between Prassana and Fernando.
There were times when it was difficult to work out exactly what the pair were doing. Singles were turned down, maidens were played out and there seemed a total lack of urgency to Sri Lanka's cricket. They ensured that only their side could win the Test, but quick runs ought to have been the aim once the lead had been extended to 150.
The partnership ended when Prasanna, on 79, edged a cut off Harmison through to Prior. Harmison has had many wild days but rarely can he have had to work so hard for success. "I was thrilled to get my third wicket because I thought, 'I need one more and then I'm off'," he said. "I'd had enough, I must admit. It was a long time in the field.
"I am happy with the three wickets, but I wasn't particularly happy that it took me 42 overs to get them. But that is the way it goes. It was pretty tough out there and I thought we battled hard. When [Prasanna] Jayawardene and Fernando got in we took our foot off the gas just a little bit, but not much. It was the only time in their innings that we did.
"Hopefully, here I have shown people how much I want to play for England. People have doubted me in the past but all I can do is try my best, and I did."
One area of England's cricket continues to be unattractive, the constant throwing of the ball to Matthew Prior, the wicketkeeper, even when the opposition are not contemplating a run. The policy is just about acceptable when the keeper is standing back to faster bowlers, but when he is up to the stumps the batsman could be in danger if he is looking elsewhere.
England will say that they do it to add energy to their fielding and so that the fielders have got their range should a run-out opportunity arise. But in this series there have been several occasions when a Sri Lankan batsman has had to take evasive action to avoid a painful blow. One such situation arose yesterday when Broad threw the ball hard at Prior from mid-wicket, a throw that forced Prasanna to dive out of the way.
The umpires immediately went to Vaughan and told him to tell his side to cut it out. And quite rightly so. It is a childish and rather cowardly way of showing that you mean business, and it is only a matter of time before a batsman gets hurt. An option for a batsman, and one I would love to see, is him swiping at the ball with his bat as it hurtles towards him and it ending up in a stand somewhere.
Shot Of The Day
Stephen Harmison suggested Prasanna Jayawardene batted selfishly for his 79. He said he was batting to orders, but played the shot of the day when he hooked Harmison over deep square-leg for four.
Ball Of The Day
The next ball Harmison produced an absolute jaffa to Jayawardene. It pitched on off stump, moved away off the seam, clipped what turned out to be thigh and flew between the keeper and first slip for four.
Moment Of The Day
* Harmison looking more and more like his old self. If England are to challenge for the Ashes in 18 months' time they will need Harmison, or a bowler of his ability, firing. Justified faith shown by selectors.
Scoreboard from Colombo
Fourth day of five; England won toss
England First Innings 351 (M Muralitharan 5-116).
Sri Lanka First Innings
(Overnight: 379 for 4)
W U Tharanga c Prior b Sidebottom 10
30min, 21 balls, 2 fours
K C Sangakkara c Prior b Sidebottom 1
11min, 10 balls
*D P M D Jayawardene c Collingwood b Panesar 195
580min, 422 balls, 16 fours, 1 six
L P C Silva c Bopara b Harmison 49
180min, 106 balls, 3 fours
J Mubarak c Bell b Harmison 9
52min, 23 balls, 1 four
†H A P W Jayawardene c Prior b Harmison 79
216min, 161 balls, 7 fours
W P U C J Vaas c Bell b Broad 4
14min, 14 balls
S L Malinga lbw b Panesar 9
33min, 23 balls, 1 four
C R D Fernando not out 36
129min, 82 balls, 5 fours
Extras (b7 lb9 w1 nb1) 18
Total (for 9 dec, 802min, 186.5 overs) 548
Fall (cont): 5-399 (Mubarak) 6-420 (D P M D Jayawardene) 7-425 (Vaas) 8-450 (Malinga) 9-548 (H A P W Jayawardene).
Did not bat: M Muralitharan.
Bowling: Sidebottom 36-4-100-3; Broad 36-5-95-1; Harmison 41.5-9-111-3; Panesar 50-7-151-2; Pietersen 15-0-57-0; Collingwood 1-1-0-0; Bopara 7-2-18-0.
Progress: Fourth day: 400: 587min, 136.4 overs. Lunch: 439-7. 450: 671min, 155 overs. 500: 748min, 172.4 overs. Tea: 531-8. Declaration: 3.19pm.
England Second Innings
A N Cook not out 19
54min, 35 balls, 2 fours
*M P Vaughan not out 28
54min, 44 balls, 3 fours
Extras (nb1) 1
Total (for 0, 54min, 13 overs) 48
To bat: I R Bell, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, R S Bopara, †M J Prior, S C J Broad, R J Sidebottom, S J Harmison, M S Panesar.
Bowling: Vaas 6-0-22-0 ; Malinga 2-0-10-0; Fernando 2-0-6-0; Mubarak 1-0-8-0; Muralitharan 2-0-2-0.
Progress: Bad light stopped play 4.25pm.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak), D J Harper (Aus).
TV replay umpire: M G Silva.
Match referee: J J Crowe (NZ).