Ashraful century boosts Bangladesh
Mohammad Ashraful, batting with calm assurance and delightful touch, propped up Bangladesh on the opening day of this two-Test series in Chittagong with a brilliant 136, the third hundred of his career and his second against Sri Lanka. His classy solo effort, supported by some gritty contributions from his colleagues, ensured that Bangladesh completed a satisfactory start to the series, finishing on 315 for 9.
Sri Lanka, playing a reduced-strength team, had grasped the upperhand just before the lunch break as Malinga Bandara, their fast-improving legspinner, whipped out Nafees Iqbal (34) and Habibul Bashar (29). But Ashraful, continuing the fine form he showed during the ODI series, steadied the innings in partnership with Shahriar Nafees (26), the pair adding 65 runs for the fifth wicket.
Ashraful was most impressive against Muttiah Muralitharan, a bowler he has coped with well since bursting onto the international scene, aged just 17, with a record-breaking century in 2001 at the Sinhalese Sports Club. Able to decode his doosra, Ashraful played Muralitharan expertly - nimble-footed and adventurous to the point of cheekiness - denying him an early wicket in his 100th Test.
When Farveez Maharoof, swinging the ball in a strong breeze, finally toppled Nafees courtesy of some cumbersome footwork, Ashraful upped the tempo a notch, swinging two of three sixes and even impishly reverse-sweeping Muralitharan before tea. Khaled Mashud, obdurate and cool-headed as ever, knuckled down at the other end, contributing just six runs to a partnership that yielded 64 useful runs.
Muralitharan, looking for five scalps to reach 1000 international wickets, was finally rewarded for his hard toil on a placid pitch with three wickets in the final session to finish with 3 for 85 from 31 overs. But Ashraful, scoring faster and faster as the day progressed, still constructed valuable partnerships with his lower order colleagues, adding 38 with Alok Kapali and 42 with Mohammad Rafique.
Sri Lanka, ruing missed early chances in a generally scruffy fielding performance, grew increasingly frustrated as the final hour approached with Ashraful in full command. However, the second new ball and a typically wholehearted display from Lasith Malinga at the death clawed the tourists back towards parity with Bangladesh at the close.
Malinga, sporting a new Lionel Ritchie haircut, had bowled a fiery spell in the morning and was still firing on all cylinders after a day in the sun, sprinting in to fire out Mohammad Rafique and Syed Rasel before stumps were drawn. Muralitharan, astutely recalled minutes before the close, also played his part as Ashraful holed out in the deep.
Earlier, Malinga, now labelled a Test specialist, returned to international cricket with an early bang as Javed Omar, who made 4, prodded awkwardly at a climbing off-stump delivery in the first over of the match. Thilan Samaraweera, another Test returnee, pouched a good catch at first slip.
Malinga continued to be a menace during a lively six-over new burst, troubling Iqbal and Bashar with his pace, away swing and bounce. He should have been rewarded with a second wicket too as Jayawardene, on the verge of a record 100 catches, spilled a waist-high chance at second slip off Iqbal on 10. Indeed, Sri Lanka's fielding lacked their new-found sharpness during the first hour as two difficult half-chances were missed and Muralitharan squandered a run-out opportunity when Bashar was on just 4. The bowling, though, remained tight and disciplined.
Iqbal and Bashar weathered the new ball and then started to lay a solid foundation as the sun broke through the early morning haze. The pitch was easy-paced but dry and Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's new captain, turned to Muralitharan after the first hour.
However, Sri Lanka did not breakthrough until Muralitharan's younger spin partner, Bandara, entered the fray. Iqbal, wasting 109 balls of careful concentration, self-destructed with a pre-meditated slog-sweep. The ball was full and straight and zipped straight through onto his stumps.
Bangladesh's frustration at having lost a wicket on the stroke of an interval, a familiar curse, heightened a few ball later when Bashar played down the wrong line of a straight Bandara delivery.
Sri Lankan hopes, though, that they had broken the back of the innings proved shortlived as Ashraful blossomed throughout the afternoon. His superb knock was yet another reminder to the rest of the cricket world that Bangladesh can no longer be underestimated. Sri Lanka, missing four senior players, are in a real battle.
Javed Omar c Samaraweera b Malinga 4 (4 for 1)
Prodded at rising delivery
Nafees Iqbal b Bandara 34 (76 for 2)
Missed a wild slog to the legside
Habibul Bashar lbw Bandara 29 (81 for 3)
Played defensively down the wrong line
Shariar Nafees b Maharoof 26 (146 for 4)
Jammed down on delivery too close to cut
Khaled Mashud lbw Muralitharan 6 (210 for 5)
Trapped in front from around the wicket
Alok Kapali c Tharanga b Muralitharan 16 (248 for 6)
Bat-pad catch after inside edge
Mohammad Raffique b Malinga 17 (293 for 7)
Uncorked by second new ball that clipped top of off
Mohammad Ashraful c Tharanga b Muralitharan 135 (308 for 8)
Mistimed pull-sweep to deep mid-wicket
Syed Rasel b Malinga 1 (314 for 9)
Beaten for pace
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent