Atapattu and Jayawardene prosper
A classical hundred from Marvan Atapattu, his first against New Zealand, and a serene unbeaten 118 from Mahela Jayawardene helped Sri Lanka stroll within touching distance of the 362 follow-on target to ensure that a draw remains the likeliest result to the opening Test despite New Zealand's massive first-innings score. Sri Lanka closed on 351 for 3 when bad light stopped play for the third successive day.
Atapattu's chanceless innings was a textbook gem. His elbow was perpendicular and his bat dead straight as he unfurled his full repertoire of off-side strokes. His cover-driving was particularly resplendent. Against the spin of Paul Wiseman his footwork was so precise and swift as he danced down the pitch that Wiseman, the only spinner in the absence of the much-needed Daniel Vettori, was visibly rattled, eventually bowling a waist-high full-toss during a particularly punishing over just before tea.
The placid pitch made it virtually impossible for New Zealand's bowlers to exploit the few chinks in his technical armoury - lifting deliveries in the corridor of uncertainty and ones that jag back from outside the off-stump - and only Chris Martin, who bowled at a decent lick and extracted some seam movement when he bowled a fuller length, proved a handful as Atapattu stroked 22 boundaries in his 127 - a hundred that that now gives him a full house against all nine Test-playing opponents.
Jayawardene, meanwhile, started like a well-oiled train and sped to his fifty at just under a run-a-ball. Unafraid to loft down the ground, he also timed the ball well through the covers and played a couple of deft late cuts. As he flowed Atapattu was able to sit back and lay anchor. Then, in the second half of the afternoon, the tables turned and Jayawardene started to slow while Atapattu grew more aggressive, quickly moving through the 90s and then passing 5000 Test runs. Their 184-run stand was a third-wicket record against New Zealand, surpassing the undefeated 159 compiled by Roy Dias and Sidath Wettimuny in Colombo during 1983-84.
The pair ran up 130 in a fast-scoring afternoon session but were then separated soon after the tea break as Nathan Astle, bowling wobblers in defensive mode, had Atapattu caught at first slip. The breakthrough created an opportunity for New Zealand, opening up one end minutes before the second new ball was due. However, although Jayawardene survived one scare when he got in a tangle trying to hook on 96, the new batsman did not create any chances. Thilan Samaraweera (34 not out) and Jayawardene rounded off the day with a solid 66-run stand.
Earlier, the morning began under clear blue skies, hinting at a tough day for the bowlers. The pancake-flat pitch offered no encouragement either. Sri Lanka's openers started in the same stylish vein they finished the previous evening, scoring freely against the still-new ball in the first half hour. But Martin's rhythm improved steadily and he began to trouble Sanath Jayasuriya (48) with deliveries that nipped back off the seam between bat and pad. He had two strong caught-behind appeals turned down before he finally broke through with a fuller off-stump delivery that seamed back just enough to win an lbw decision from Steve Bucknor.
A few moments later, with the first ball after the drinks break, Martin also dismissed Kumar Sangakkara with a similar delivery that ricocheted onto the stumps after a lazy drive. Suddenly, on 101 for 2, needing 362 to avoid the follow-on, Sri Lanka were under pressure. But Atapattu and Jayawardene buckled down and, after lunch, started to reap the rewards for their hard work.
A decisive result now seems improbable, but New Zealand will be kept interested by Sri Lanka's unusually long tail. Although many of the bowlers are useful with the bat, they don't have the luxury of a seventh batter in this match. Sri Lanka's only chance of forcing a result will be to have a glorious batting day and draw level or build a small lead by teatime. However, with the pitch showing no signs of deterioration, a draw is the likely conclusion.
Sanath Jayasuriya lbw Martin 48 (95 for 1)
Caught on the crease by a full-length delivery that cut back.
Kumar Sangakkara b Martin 5 (101 for 2)
Chopped ball on to the stumps with a lazy off-side drive.
Marvan Atapattu c Fleming b Astle 127 (285 for 3)
Edged to the solitary slip while attempting to cut.
Charlie Austin is the editor of Cricinfo in Sri Lanka