Matt Prior and Ryan Sidebottom are not two of England's most high-profile cricketers. For each a walk down the High Street is rarely interrupted by a demand for autographs. But without their endeavour yesterday England would have been in a right pickle. It is not over-egging it to suggest that Michael Vaughan's side, after a seventh day of Test cricket in Sri Lanka, could already be out of the three-Test series.
The pair's initial contribution was made following the loss of two early wickets, dismissals that threatened to spoil much of England's hard work on Sunday. England began the second day of the second Test on 258 for 5 but when Paul Collingwood and Stuart Broad were trapped plumb in front no controversy here on these occasions England appeared set to fall short of 300. Yet, with the doomsters gathering voice, Prior and Sidebottom rebutted Sri Lanka's finest for almost two hours, adding 74 valuable runs in an industrious and sensible partnership. The stand allowed England to post a reasonably competitive first-innings total of 351.
England's score became even more combative in the opening nine overs of the hosts' reply when Sidebottom dismissed Upul Tharanga and Kumar Sangakkara, Sri Lanka's in-form batsman. Each of Sidebottom's victims was well caught by Prior behind the stumps. The double strike reduced the hosts to 22 for 2, but in the final session of play the tourists were unable to make any further inroads. Michael Vandort, with an unbeaten 50, and Mahela Jayawardene, 43 not out, blunted England's attack, taking their side to 105 for 2 when bad light stopped play.
"We were a little bit disappointed with our total," admitted Sidebottom. "We were aiming for around 400 this morning but [Chaminda] Vaas and [Lasith] Malinga bowled well first up so it wasn't to be. But 350 is still a competitive score."
There is nothing more that a bowler loves than scoring a few runs down the bottom of the order but it was the dismissal of Sangakkara that gave Sidebottom the greatest pleasure. In Kandy, England's bowlers would have felt as though they were bowling at a brick wall while he collected 244 runs, but cricket is a great leveller and Sangakkara had to go when he edged the 10th ball he faced through to Prior.
On seeing the catch safely taken Sidebottom went galloping towards the cover point region, in Monty Panesar style, jumping for joy before swooping round like an aeroplane and returning to his team-mates. "You work so hard to get good players out so I was ecstatic to get his early wicket," he said.
The other three members of England's attack toiled gamefully, with Stuart Broad coming closest to taking a wicket. Broad's debut began horribly, when he was trapped lbw for two, and it became worse when he took the second over of the Sri Lankan innings. In his opening over umpire Aleem Dar expressed concern about where Broad's feet were landing in his follow-through and within five overs he had been warned twice. A third warning would have seen him banned for the remainder of the innings. Yet, in between the warnings and during a lively second spell from the other end, Broad highlighted why he is rated so highly. His bowling was straight and purposeful, and on another day a couple of aerial shots would have gone to hand. If he wants to bowl with freedom, though, he will have to ensure he keeps off the pitch.
Steve Harmison bowled reasonably well, too, sending down several hostile balls in 10 overs. In his first spell he bowled too short and Jayawardene left him comfortably, but he returned with a much better spell before the close. Panesar was once again disappointing and England are likely to need a significant contribution from him if they are to leave Colombo with the series level.
Sidebottom scored only 17 of the 74 runs added with Prior, who confirmed his position as England's No 1 'keeper with a fine 79 and another good display with the gloves. Much is expected of the modern wicketkeeper. Not only must they bat well; they need to be able to score quickly and smash it around, too. Prior is capable of both.
England continued to thrive until Muttiah Muralitharan found the outside edge of Sidebottom's bat. Harmison perished first ball and Prior's brave innings ended when he tried to slog the legendary spinner for six.
The wicket gave Murali, who once again did not bowl particularly well, the 62nd five-wicket haul of his Test career. How England would love to have a man capable of producing such figures during an indifferent day's work.
Scoreboard from Colombo
Second day of five England won toss
England First innings (Overnight: 258-5)
P D Collingwood lbw b Vaas......... 52
145 min, 96 balls, 7 fours
†M J Prior c and b Muralitharan......... 79
189 min, 130 balls, 9 fours
S C J Broad lbw b Malinga......... 2
12 min, 8 balls
R J Sidebottom c D P M D Jayawardene b Muralitharan......... 17
110 min, 81 balls, 1 four
S J Harmison c Silva b Muralitharan......... 0
6 min, 1 ball
M S Panesar not out......... 0
8 min, 7 balls
Extras (b 8, lb 2, w 0, nb 7, pens 0)......... 17
Total (536min, 126.2 overs)......... 351
Fall (cont): 6-269 (Collingwood), 7-272 (Broad), 8-346 (Sidebottom), 9-350 (Harmison), 10-351 (Prior).
Bowling: Vaas 32-8-68-2; Malinga 24-3-78-3; Fernando 23-3-79-0; Muralitharan 47.2-9-116-5 .
Sri Lanka First innings
M G Vandort not out......... 50
174 min, 91 balls, 5 fours
W U Tharanga c Prior b Sidebottom......... 10
30 min, 21 balls, 2 fours
K C Sangakkara c Prior b Sidebottom......... 1
11 min, 10 balls
*D P M D Jayawardene not out......... 43
131 min, 106 balls, 5 fours
Extras (b 0, lb 0, w 1, nb 0, pens 0)......... 1
Total (2 wkts, 174min, 38 overs)......... 105
Fall: 1-20 (Tharanga), 2-22 (Sangakkara).
To bat: L P C Silva, J Mubarak, †H A P W Jayawardene, W P U C J Vaas, C R D Fernando, S L Malinga, M Muralitharan.
Bowling: Sidebottom 11-1-35-2 (w1) (8-0-27-2, 3-1-8-0); Broad 11-3-19-0 (5-1-6-0, 6-2-13-0); Harmison 10-2-23-0 (5-2-10-0, 5-0-13-0); Panesar 6-0-28-0 (5-0-22-0, 1-0-6-0).
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak), D J Harper (Aus).