Three centurions make it Sri Lanka's day
On a slow, benign SSC track, Sri Lanka accumulated ruthlessly, and looked set to get themselves a total that would rule out a defeat. They were helped by the Indian fielders who did not accept the half-chances that came their way. Three contrasting centuries were scored: Mahela Jayawardene was elegant from start to finish, Malinda Warnapura surer and grittier than yesterday, and Thilan Samarweera - who came in to bat when the fielders and bowlers were at their most tired - almost unobtrusively capitalised with an unbeaten 111.
There were gripping passages of play when an Indian bowler bowled well from one end, but that didn't translate into breaks for them. Also India would have ended with one more wicket but for the review system for umpiring decisions, which made its debut in this Test.
Jayawardene, continuing his love affair with the SSC, set the agenda right in the first over of the day with a perfect cover-drive off Ishant Sharma. He continued to bat in much the same manner - he would have failed to look inelegant even if he had tried. When India tried to plug the leaks by setting defensive fields and not giving him anything to drive, he didn't lose patience and settled down for his ninth century at the SSC, a record for the most centuries at a venue, which he now shares with Don Bradman (MCG). He now has 2198 runs at the SSC at an average of 81.4, which is 28.87% of his career runs.
Warnapura, after an unconvincing fifty yesterday, batted with much more assurance, and seemed to have gained from his captain's soothing presence at the other end. When India brought the scoring-rate down in the first session, it was Warnapura who broke the shackles with two boundaries off Harbhajan in one over. Harbhajan had conceded three runs in three overs till then, his next three went for 23. When he slashed Ishant Sharma past gully just before lunch, he reached his second century in five Tests, his first at home.
Samaraweera, who got off to a cautious start, almost played on to Harbhajan on 16. But he settled down soon, and even before the tired fielders and bowlers knew what had hit them, Samaraweera had reached his 50 off 86 deliveries. Post tea, even after Ishant had got Jayawardene with a beauty, he picked up the scoring rate to move from 80 to 97 in eight deliveries, and then onto his seventh Test century, with a square cut.
Two instances summed up the predicament for the Indian bowlers who had a forgettable day in the field. Jayawardene moved on to the front foot against Ishant; the bowler consciously shortened the length but Jayawardene had enough time to transfer the weight on to the back foot and cut, rolling his wrists over it. He played an identical shot the next ball and the message was clear: economy might be the best form of attack once the ball lost its shine for the pitch absorbed the pace and offered only slow movement.
Secondly, with Jayawardene on 93, Anil Kumble, the pick of Indian bowlers, beat him with a big legbreak. There was a faint edge to Dinesh Karthik but as it turned out, he was in no position to gather it, prompting Kumble to vent his frustrations. That was not the first catch India had dropped in the day. Jayawardene had earlier been dropped on 55, again by Karthik off Kumble. Warnapura was let off on 113 by VVS Laxman at gully just before Harbhajan ended his 115 with an offbreak that took the edge. Then Gautam Gambhir dropped Samaraweera, when the latter was on 53, off Harbhajan at forward short-leg. Admittedly they were all sharp chances, but on flat pitches the half-chances become all the more important.
The other factor that hampered India was the no-balls: Zaheer Khan and Kumble the culprits. Zaheer had bowled three of them yesterday, and bowled seven more today while Kumble contributed with six of his own. Zaheer was also denied a wicket off one of them when he held on to a sharp return catch from Warnapura, then on 55.
Another disconcerting aspect of the day's play for India was that the bowlers failed to attack in pairs. When Zaheer started well in the morning, Ishant didn't impress with the old ball; when Kumble was bowling a miserly spell in a tight phase of play before lunch, Harbhajan couldn't support him. In the middle session, when Zaheer bowled a testing spell from round the stumps, getting occasional reverse-swing, runs kept coming from the other end. With the new ball, Ishant asked questions of batsmen, also bowling the delivery of the day to dismiss Jayawardene - it started to come in with the angle, but held its line, much in the same manner he had dismissed Ricky Ponting in Perth. But Zaheer failed to turn up from the other end, not bowling top pace, failing to get swing.
Sri Lanka, to add insult to injury, ended up on right side of the three reviews of the umpiring decisions. When India appealed against an lbw decision given in favour of Warnapura, the ball - bowled from round the stumps by Harbhajan - had not straightened enough. When Tillakaratne Dilshan had been given out caught behind off Zaheer, Dilshan challenged successfully. In that case, Dilshan contended his bat had hit the ground, but the snickometer, which cannot be used to make the decision, showed the noise had occurred even before his bat hit the ground. In the last over of the day, to sum up their woeful day, India challenged again. This time the ball had pitched well outside the leg stump before striking Dilshan's pads.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo