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August 6, 2006
South Africa may not yet be home and dry, but after a classic day of Test cricket - tightly-fought, full of tension, with a dollop of controversy for good measure - they are in a commanding position. With two days to play their 297-run lead is already healthy, and they have three wickets in the bag. Sri Lanka have their backs firmly to the wall.
History tells us that records may have to be broken if Sri Lanka are to triumph, for the highest successful run chase on Sri Lankan soil is the 326 for 5 scored by Sri Lanka against Zimbabwe in 1997/98. The next highest chase was the 264 for 3 scored by India in Kandy back in 2001. Fourth innings run chases are notoriously tough on Sri Lanka's dusty slow pitches.
Muttiah Muralitharan, though, has left them with a glimmer of hope as he snatched three wickets in the final session to finish with 4 for 86, one away from equalling his own record of four consecutive ten-wicket hauls, a feat he achieved in 2001/02. If he can polish off the innings swiftly then there is the prospect of a mouth-watering finale to the series.
South Africa's performance in the last few days has been exceptional, a reminder of their gritty defiance in 2000 when they clawed their way back after a mauling in Galle. Sadly, if they do level the series, we will be denied a third deciding Test match. Two-match series should be banned because, far too often, they end just when the contest is heating-up, robbing us of real drama.
Today their defiance was personified by Herschelle Gibbs, a cricketer on Test cricket's Death Row when this match commenced. His last hundred was 19 months ago and, prior to his 92 today, he'd crossed 20 only once in his previous 11 innings. But today he fronted-up bravely, gritting and grimacing his way through two sessions. It was rarely pretty or fluent, but it was gutsy and his runs were gold dust in the context of this game.
At one stage, around lunchtime, it looked extremely bleak for the Sri Lankans but the controversial dismissal of Jaques Rudolph handed them a lifeline. Rudolph was reluctant to depart after seeing the red light, apparently convinced that the fielder's hand had brushed the boundary edge before he was run out by a freak direct hit from 70 yards. But the third umpire, Tyrone Wijewardene, had read his law book correctly: the fielding side gains the benefit of doubt on boundary decisions.
Rudolph's dismissal was followed by two compelling sessions. Gibbs battled on and Sri Lanka made South Africa earn every single run with a combination of disciplined bowling and well-set fields. Whenever South Africa edged ahead, Sri Lanka somehow clawed back. The spectators were glued to the edge of their seats in the P Saravanamuttu Stadium.
The only disappointment from a Sri Lankan perspective will have been the bowling performances of Sanath Jayasuriya and Lasith Malinga. While Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas and Ferveez Maharoof squeezed South Africa with their accuracy, Jayasuriya and Malinga served up too many loose balls, providing the batsmen with opportunities to ease the pressure.
Tomorrow morning Mahela Jayawardene will surely start with Vaas or Maharoof in partnership with Muralitharan. If they strike early, opening up the tail, then Sri Lanka will have a sniff. But winning - there just seems too much time left for a draw unless South Africa bat on past lunch - will require batting of the calibre we saw at the Sinhalese Sports Club last weekend.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondentFeeds: Charlie Austin
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