Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Cairns, 3rd day July 11, 2004

Atapattu leads Sri Lankan riposte

Sri Lanka 5 for 411 (Atapattu 133, Sangakkara 74, Samaraweera 53*) trail Australia 517 by 106 runs

Marvan Atapattu: a classy hundred © Getty Images

Australia have not lost a Test in Queensland in 15 years, which is almost as long as Joh Bjelke-Petersen - implausibly undemocratic yet unfailingly popular - spent running the joint. For two hours this morning Sri Lanka, led by their admirable captain Marvan Atapattu, made slow but steady inroads into one of cricket's safest fiefdoms. Just as slowly, and a little less steadily, Australia's bowlers hit back with two pantomime wickets after lunch and another after tea. By the end of a tense and twisting third day's play, prematurely cut off by rain and bad light, Sri Lanka trailed by 106 runs with five wickets in hand.

Commonsense and recent history dictates that if any side is to win this intriguing contest, which has spawned 928 runs in three days, it must be Australia. Before lunch, however, with Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene in full effortless swing, anything seemed possible. Ricky Ponting juggled his bowlers and shuffled his field, in much the same way Bjelke-Petersen used to shuffle the electoral boundaries when he was in a tight spot. It worked wonders for old Joh but brought only frustration for Ponting, captaining Australia for the first time on home soil. Seldom were the batsmen inconvenienced, much less imperilled.

The history of Sri Lankan batting has mostly been a story of dashers and crashers, of destroyers and de Silvas. Apart from occasional outbreaks of dogged mutiny - or dogged Wettimuny, if you want to get really specific - the general philosophy has been to hit out lest you get out.

Atapattu is cut from different cloth: hard to distract from the task at hand, even harder to dislodge once set. His 133 today was his third hundred in five innings since taking over the captaincy from Hashan Tillakaratne, another resilient type. It would be premature to leap to conclusions - two of those centuries came against a team masquerading as Zimbabwe's 4th XI, after all - but he would appear to be grooming this Sri Lankan side in his own image.

Where Tillakaratne could be unflappable to the point of strokelessness, Atapattu exudes a sense of purpose about his patience. This morning he was scintillating through the covers, severe on anything short and stoic at all other times. So prolific was he on the cover-drive that Ponting, more in hope than inspiration, planted a row of three short covers with the aim of luring a catch. Atapattu kept his head and the ball along the ground - and he kept cover-driving too. With yet another clinical snap of the wrists, he brought up his 15th Test hundred.

Much of the pre-play pontificating had inevitably centred on Shane Warne, and whether yesterday's ominous late spell might mean he stood a better than even chance of breaking Muttiah Muralitharan's world record. Happily for nostalgics, today's play was televised ad-free throughout Australia on the ABC, with Channel 9 preferring to serve up a midwinter's footy smorgasbord. Kerry Packer, confronted by the vague possibility of his star employee's crowning moment, might briefly have entertained second thoughts.

He needn't have fretted. Atapattu sat on Warne for the most part and pounced on anything short, twice cutting him for three and once pulling him for four. Warne was removed after two overs, brought back on the hour, but lacked verve and variety, turning his legbreak painfully slowly. At the other end Jayawardene looked no less secure, albeit slightly less likely to set hearts aflutter. Sri Lanka, resuming on 2 for 184, went to lunch at 2 for 280. If not quite in the ascendancy, they had at least got the better of Australia for the fourth consecutive session.

Old habits, however, tend to die hard. Two hours of grinding certainty were largely undone in two overs of blinding recklessness. Glenn McGrath, after a tight but rarely testing opening spell, tossed down a slow loosener second ball after the break. Atapattu, the lunchtime barramundi barely digested, caressed it sleepily to gully. Next over Michael Kasprowicz dug in a short ball high outside off. Jaywardene, apparently attempting to swat it crossbatted over the bowler's head, succeeded only in hoicking it straight up for a return catch.

Tillakaratne Dilshan uncoiled successive pulls for four off McGrath to carry Sri Lanka past the target, probably notional, to avoid the follow-on. He and Thilan Samaraweera calmly added 65 before post-break madness descended again. Dilshan had lunged forward at one of Warne's sliders just before tea and survived a convincing lbw appeal. Now, with only three runs added, he charged at Warne, failed to get to the pitch of the ball and drilled it straight to mid-on, where Kasprowicz juggled a comfortable catch. Victim 522; the record hunt was on again.

Romesh Kaluwitharana plays an innovative hoick on the way to an entertaining 30 not out © Getty Images

For a few moments Warne, perhaps sensing it was now or never, looked his old self. He mixed his flight and varied his pace; his drift, more importantly, had re-materialised. The new man Romesh Kaluwitharana, playing his first Test in a year, appeared temporarily dumbstruck but soon settled, using his feet industriously and adding a vital 66 runs with Samaraweera.

It felt like an important innings for Samaraweera who, until today, averaged 71 at home and only 18 away. Unlike his skipper he scarcely drove at all, preferring to wriggle inside the line and alternately hook over square leg or spoon over third man. By stumps, light-footed and inventive, he was not out on 53, his first Test half-century abroad.

And so for the second time a Test match in Australia's tropics extends to a fourth day. A result one way or the other still looks a fair possibility, despite the blustery rain and gloomy light - another first on this Top End Tour - which cajoled the players off the field 21 overs early.

Ah, the Queensland weather. There's one thing even Bjelke-Petersen couldn't fix.