Gibbs and Murali ensure even contest
Another enthralling day of Test cricket ended with the match still hanging in the balance, as South Africa closed the third day on 257 for 7, an overall lead of 297. Herschelle Gibbs shrugged off his recent poor form to score an assured and patient 92, but Muttiah Muralitharan - that man again - neutralised much of South Africa's advantage in the last two sessions, finishing with 4 for 86, and is just one wicket away from his fourth successive haul of ten wickets in a match.
If the first two days had produced a flurry of boundaries, then the third one was characterised by dour, gritty cricket. The pitch became slower, which made driving down the ground more difficult, and most of the Sri Lankan bowlers tightened up their act. Mahela Jayawardene employed a more defensive field as well, employing sweepers to man the third-man, square-leg and midwicket boundaries almost throughout the day, ensuring that strokes which sped away to the fence on the first day now fetched only a single. In the last two sessions, especially, the runs reduced to a trickle: after 100 came in 29 overs in the morning, only a further 151 were added in 61 overs through the rest of the day.
That South Africa managed to stretch their lead to nearly 300 was largely due to the one man who had been struggling for form over the last few months: in his last 11 innings before this one, Gibbs had managed a mere 158. Here, though, he was their most assured batsman. His footwork was precise, especially against Vaas, who has nailed him 12 times in international cricket, most of them early in his innings. With the ball not swinging much, Vaas's biggest weapon - the ball which swings back into the right-hander - wasn't a factor, and Gibbs flourished. When offered width outside off, Gibbs flayed his drives through cover and point, and fittingly, one such stroke, off Maharoof, brought him his 22nd Test fifty. He read Muralitharan's variations well too, mostly playing with the turn to leg, and once even slog-sweeping him over square leg for six. And when a couple of quick wickets went down, Gibbs buckled down and played with immense responsibility, till he finally top-edged a sweep off Muralitharan in the last over before tea.
With Andrew Hall, who batted with plenty of assurance for his 32, Gibbs added 76 for the first wicket, in the process stretching the lead to more than 100. Even after Hall left, South Africa were still in cruise mode until they dug their own grave with two run-outs.
The first mix-up occurred in slightly controversial circumstances: an appeal for lbw against Gibbs was turned down, the batsmen ran leg-byes as the ball raced towards the third-man fence, where Chamara Kapugedera dived to keep the ball in play, and then fired in a direct hit which found Rudolph well short. The doubt arose over whether Kapugedera had actually kept the ball in play - replays showed his hand was very close to the fence, but since they weren't conclusive, third umpire Tyron Wijewardene correctly gave the benefit of doubt to the fielder, in keeping with the latest clarification issued by the ICC in June.
The second run-out - that of Hashim Amla - was much more straightforward, if equally needless, and those errors by South Africa suddenly brought the Sri Lankans back in the contest, and it gave an opening to Muralitharan, who had looked fairly ordinary early in his spell. His first wicket, of Gibbs, came in his 22nd over, but from there, he was a threat every time he came on to bowl. AB de Villiers, South Africa's highest run-getter in the series, made a solid if restrained 33, while Ashwell Prince battled hard for 75 deliveries to make 17, but neither batsman looked like he would dominate the bowling - de Villiers became Muralitharan's 100th South African victim when he top-edged a sweep to short leg.
Shaun Pollock - one of seven batsmen to get into double-figures - looked in fine nick too, but he too followed the script of the day, falling after spending a significant time at the crease. Mark Boucher and Nicky Boje ensured against further casualties, as South Africa lived to fight another day. Only twice have teams scored more than 200 to win a Test in Sri Lanka - India chased down 264 and won by seven wickets at Kandy in 2001, while Sri Lanka made 326 against Zimbabwe in 1997-98. Can Sri Lanka add to that number?
Andrew Hall c P Jayawardene b Maharoof 32 (76 for 1)
Tried to force off the back foot, thin edge to the wicketkeeper
Jacques Rudolph run out (Kapugedera) 15 (119 for 2)
Direct hit from the third-man boundary after some controversy over whether the ball had been cleanly fielded at the fence
Hashim Amla run out (Kapugedera) 8 (131 for 3)
Both batsmen caught mid-pitch after a flick to short square leg
Herschelle Gibbs c Jayasuriya b Muralitharan 92 (161 for 4)
Top-edged a sweep to short fine leg
Ashwell Prince c & b Muralitharan 17 (206 for 5)
Didn't get to the pitch and scooped a drive
AB de Villiers c Dilshan b Muralitharan 33 (207 for 6)
Top-edged a sweep onto helmet, and then to short leg
Shaun Pollock c Tharanga b Muralitharan 14 (235 for 7)
Pulled a short ball straight to square leg
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo