The captain's last stand
Having deferred what seems like another Test defeat, Sri Lanka will be forgiven for wondering how things would have turned out had Kumar Sangakkara displayed in the first two Tests the patience and quality he showed today. He stood tall and unflustered as his team-mates lost their wickets to good balls, bad shots, and a dreadful umpiring mistake.
That error, committed by Daryl Harper, got rid of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sri Lanka's most destructive batsman: the Australian upheld an lbw appeal against a ball Hawk-Eye predicted was sailing wide and high of leg stump. Moments after Dilshan departed, still stunned, Sangakkara took guard. His body language was relaxed, he did not go through the routine - jumping, bending, stretching - batsmen new to the crease often resort to, to get rid of nerves.
What Sangakkara did do, every ball, was check if his footing was correct as he apparently did not want to get caught off guard. So he would shuffle his feet half an inch at the final moment to make doubly sure he was suitably placed for the ball. When your side's staring down the barrel, no precaution is too much.
Sri Lanka began the day 322 runs adrift of India's first-innings total and were immediately put on the back foot after Dilshan's exit. Sangakkara walked in with a highest score of 44 on this tour and a new-found reputation for impatience: in Ahmdedabad, having got a start, he went for an unnecessary pull; in Kanpur he sent Mahela Jayawardene fuming to the dressing room in the second innings after calling for a non-existent single.
What's changed from the Sangakkara of old is the captaincy, and that could be weighing him down. Stuart Law, Sri Lanka's assistant coach, probably put his finger on the problem when he said, only half in jest, what's been eating the captain. "He's had sleepless nights working out how to not only get batsmen out but also stop them scoring," Law said, a reference to the manner in which Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar have made merry against the Sri Lankan attack.
So when Sangakkara took guard today the Indians might have thought he would once again fall to his own doubts. But he remained unfazed, content to defend and dispatch the ball on merit. Harbhajan Singh, Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan were played with caution but the left-arm spin of Pragyan Ojha was handled comfortably, mainly because he was playing with the spin.
Where Sangakkara had a problem was in finding support at the other end as the Indian bowlers made the most of the runs in the bank. Things did not look promising for Sri Lanka when four wickets fell in quick succession to leave them at 144 for 5. Sangakkara then lost the last specialist partner in Prasanna Jayawardene immediately into the final session. Those setbacks, though, only seemed to make him more resolute.
With his firm footwork and strong mind, he inched his way to a half-century by tea off 151 balls, most of his runs coming from nudges, glides and the odd boundary. On resumption he changed gears immediately. His last 83 runs were scored off 107 balls and he waltzed down the wicket as soon as the new ball was taken. Erratic bowling from the Indians in the last 10 overs relaxed him further.
Sangakkara's knock is unlikely to save Sri Lanka from losing the Test, though it may prevent a second successive innings defeat, but he will be able to take some satisfaction from delivering again in trying circumstances. Back in 2007, he recovered from a hamstring injury to flay the Australian fast bowlers in Hobart and give the hosts a scare. Sri Lanka had needed a further 260 on the final day, chasing a world-record 507 to level the series. Unfortunately Sangakkara fell victim to a dubious umpiring decision and returned with an embarrassing smile, eight runs short of a double century. He has another chance to make it up; actually, make that half a chance.