Tailenders' batting swung match - Sangakkara
The fanatical India optimist will lose sleep harbouring visions of another Kolkata turnaround, but the truth is Sri Lanka have put this match beyond India. They have played more sensibly and professionally, showing an indication to hold back instead of accelerating, and while it hasn't been the most authoritative of performances, it has put them on course for an emphatic series victory.
Sri Lanka had much the better of proceedings on the third day. Inspired by Kumar Sangakkara's 144 they edged past India's first-innings 249 before the bowlers ran through India's top order to leave themselves five wickets to win the game. Sri Lanka started the day with a two-run lead and Sangakkara resumed on 107, in the company Prasanna Jayawardene. Sangakkara's determination revived memories of his unbeaten 157 against West Indies at Kandy in 2005, where he was forced to dig deep and shun his natural aggressive instincts. Like that innings, this could prove match-winning as well.
"It just depends on how I made the approach," said Sangakkara. "Sometimes I have made the wrong decisions, sometimes I have not been up to the task. You get those periods [but] the key is to keep focus and keep your confidence up."
Like yesterday, he was decisive about when to leave and when to play his shots. Harbhajan Singh again invited the drive but Sangakkara waited until he thought the time was ripe, and then fluent shots followed. He appeared untroubled at the crease but was cut off when he nibbled Kumble to Parthiv Patel, who managed to hold on. "My attitude is it doesn't matter what you have done before but what really comes," Sangakkara said.
Instead of wilting, Sri Lanka's lower order pressed on, led by Prasanna, who made a crucial 49. Prasanna's skills as a wicketkeeper were never in doubt but Sangakkara's stock as a matchwinner meant he had to wait his turn. He has evolved tremendously and made a niche for himself as a street fighter, always up for a scrap. His batting had a calmness about it but his instinct for singles was lethal. His soft-handed steers evaded cemented close-in catchers, and he cut and swept with precision. Only 101 runs were scored in the first session but the pendulum had swung Sri Lanka's way.
Dammika Prasad, in his first innings, combined with Prasanna and Ajantha Mendis to inject life into the tail and get Sri Lanka's lead close to 150. Every run counted, and the tail went about it manfully.
"The way Prasanna, Prasad and Mendis scored runs really swayed the tempo to our camp when we walked into the field," said Sangakkara. That was all the confidence Sri Lanka needed on a third day track, and they maintained it despite a blazing Indian reply.
In nine overs between the last Sri Lankan wicket and tea, India's openers pummelled 57 runs. Virender Sehwag came out after the interval like a man possessed and drilled Prasad for a fierce straight driven four. Then, in the space of five deliveries from Prasad, India's openers were gone - victims of needless shots. As he had in the first innings, Prasad delivered what his fast-bowling predecessors could not. He didn't waver, kept attacking, and took his match tally to what Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Kulasekara took in two matches.
If Prasad's success was unexpected, Mendis' was customary. Muttiah Muralitharan removed Sourav Ganguly and then it was over to Mendis, who trapped Parthiv with a skidder. Mendis' mastery over India continued with off breaks, skidders and two-fingered googlies, which kept the batsmen guessing. His 25th wicket, surpassing Alec Bedser's record for a three-match debut series, was the man he had failed to dislodge so far in this series. Sachin Tendulkar did come out to bat, but made no impact, fatally opting to pad up to Mendis.
"Now his [Mendis'] challenge is to get better everyday," said Sangakkara. "He's got a great bunch of senior bowlers he can talk to, whether it's fast bowlers or spinners. The character and intelligence he's shown ... I am sure as the years go by he'll get better and better."
This match has swung one way, then the other, only to be further elbowed and nudged to and fro, but thanks to efficient batting and rejuvenated bowling, it has now been wrested Sri Lanka's way. The disconsolate looks from Galle were replaced with smiles, back-slaps and a massive step towards clinching a series that has been thoroughly engrossing.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo