Lehmann century boosts Australia
Australia 314 for 6 (Ponting 92, Lehmann 104*) v Sri Lanka
Australia are on course to inflict Sri Lanka's first whitewash in a home Test series, after Darren Lehmann and Ricky Ponting combined to produce their best first-innings performance of the series so far. Australia, who won the toss for the third match running, weathered a sticky first hour and a post-lunch wobble to close on 314 for 6.
Ponting led from the front with a forceful 92, his first substantial score in a lean maiden series as Test captain, while Lehmann, who has been a constant thorn in the flesh of Sri Lanka's spinners, compiled 104 not out from 186 balls - an innings that was belligerent at the start and defiant towards the close. It was Lehmann's second hundred of the series, and the fifth of a career that is belatedly coming to fruition.
Ponting started the tour in prolific form during the one-day series, but had failed to deliver his customary big scores in the first two Tests, making 21, 28, 10 and 27 at Galle and Kandy. But here, at a near-empty Sinhalese Sports Club, he finally cashed in with a 138-ball innings that included 11 fours and one lofted straight six.
Australia were precariously placed at 96 for 3, after Damien Martyn had fallen for 14 just after lunch, but Ponting stole back the initiative quickly with a 121-run stand for the fourth wicket with Lehmann, who was relaxed at the crease under his wide-brimmed sunhat. Like Ponting, Lehmann used his feet frequently and expertly to dominate the spinners.
Sri Lanka suffered an early setback when Nuwan Zoysa pulled up with a calf injury in his fourth over of the morning. Fortunately for Sri Lanka, ultrasound scans revealed no tear and he may still bowl again later in the game, but in his absence Chaminda Vaas proved the most penetrative of the bowlers. He picked up 3 for 76 from 20 overs, spread over three separate spells.
Vaas took one wicket in the morning - Justin Langer for 19 - and two more in the afternoon, including Martyn just after lunch and Ponting, who mistimed a cover-drive and spooned a catch to mid-off, with the last delivery before tea (217 for 4).
Muttiah Muralitharan has a phenomenal record at the SSC - 103 wickets in 16 Tests - and he had come into the match expecting to enjoy some extra pace and bounce, which would theoretically make his doosra more potent. But Ponting and especially Lehmann knocked him onto the back foot as he conceded 56 runs in 13 overs without taking a wicket.
But he did strike back in the afternoon, when Simon Katich chipped up a return catch which Murali gleefully gobbled up as he dived two-handed to his left (244 for 5). Katich had been preferred to Andrew Symonds as Australia switched back to a more traditional three-pronged pace attack.
Lehmann and Adam Gilchrist (22) slowed the tempo slightly in the final houyr and a half, consolidating a good day's work with a 55-run stand. Murali, though, struck as the light faded when Sanath Jayasuriya at slip clung onto an edge from Gilchrist (312 for 6).
In the morning, after the luckless and under-pressure Hashan Tillakaratne had lost the toss again, Sri Lanka failed to make early inroads with the new ball despite overcast conditions and a heavy swing-friendly atmosphere. Langer and Matthew Hayden made a solid start with a 43-run stand in 50 minutes.
Zoysa's injury gave Tillakaratne an unwelcome headache, but Vaas soon provided some cheer for Sri Lanka, as Langer top-edged an attempted pull to Tillakaratne Dilshan at midwicket (43 for 1). It was another disappointing effort from Langer, who has made just 75 runs in five innings in the series.
Thilan Samaraweera, back in the team after a groin injury, came into the attack ahead of schedule as a replacement for Zoysa, and was rewarded with the prize scalp of Hayden, who shuffled down the wicket and miscued a lofted drive to Upul Chandana, the substitute fielder, running back from mid-off (60 for 2).
Ponting and Martyn soon settled, adding 36 runs for the third wicket to reach lunch on 96 for 2, before Vaas produced a perfectly pitched legcutter to remove Martyn (96 for 3). But Ponting and Lehmann reacted positively to the fall of the third wicket, raising the tempo against the spinners with a series of powerful lofted drives to rock Sri Lanka back onto the defensive.
Ponting cracked Muralitharan, who was used sparingly during the first half of the day, through the off side to bring up his fifty, while Lehmann produced a series of bellicose drives. Muralitharan would also have broken through had Mahela Jayawardene clung onto a very difficult one-handed chance off a scything cut when Lehmann had 20.
Lehmann celebrated his letoff by tucking into Sri Lanka's slow bowlers as he raced to his half-century in 75 balls. He slowed down in the evening session, and enjoyed a run-out reprieve on 62 when Kumar Sangakkara got himself in a tangle. But by the close he had soldiered on to his hundred, to leave Australia in a healthy position.