Australia seek reward for effort
Australia's meticulous planning and organised performance against a Sri Lankan team that has floundered rather more than it has flourished will count for very little should the hosts gather themselves and win the final Test in Colombo. For all the progress that appears to have been made under the captaincy of Michael Clarke, there will be nothing to show for it in terms of the series or the ICC rankings if the Australians slip up at the SSC.
Shane Watson, the vice-captain, was extremely wary of this fact as he looked back upon the second Test in Pallekele, which the tourists dominated to an even greater extent than they had in Galle, only for rain and bad light to scupper any chance of the victory that would have secured a 2-0 series lead. Having worked so assiduously towards the goal of success in Sri Lanka, the thought of going home with a 1-1 scoreline from the Tests drew a pained look on Watson's face.
"That's the most disappointing thing about this Test," Watson said. "We played really well throughout the whole Test and didn't get the result to be able to win the series. We're really going to have to be on, because if we're not on in the last Test we could draw the series.
"Given how well we've played over the last two Tests we'll be letting ourselves down if we don't play as well as we know we can and give them a chance to get back into the series."
Critical to the fortunes of both teams will be the matter of physical recovery, for despite all the rain breaks, and numerous innings of brief duration, team physios and the medical staff have been stretched to the edges of their capability by the scheduling of three back-to-back Tests. Watson, well-attuned to the need for rigorous personal training and maintenance after an injury-riddled start to his career, emphasised the need for a light few days.
"The most important thing is to recover as well as we can," Watson said. "We need to go into the third Test as fresh as we possibly can so these next three days are going to be so important to make sure we are ready to go and play well again.
"[For me] it means not doing too much at all apart from a little bit of batting to be able to get that going well, but bowling-wise I won't be doing too much because I bowled a bit through this game. I know exactly what works for me and that is freshening up as much as I can to give myself every chance to be in a good place going into the last Test, because three Test matches in three weeks is hard work and you need every chance of energy you can."
Within the Australian XI, the most critical questions of fitness will surround the pace spearhead Ryan Harris, due to have a stiff right hamstring assessed on his arrival in Colombo on Tuesday afternoon, plus the inexperienced duo of Nathan Lyon and Trent Copeland.
"That [injury] has always been part of his history unfortunately," Watson said. "We've seen how well he's bowled in the last two Tests. When he's fit and going he's definitely one of our first picked bowlers because he charges in all day and bowls well with the new and old ball. But that is always the question, playing three Tests back to back with his history. We'll see how he pulls up."
Lyon and Copeland have so far responded stoutly to the physical and technical challenges presented to them, but may yet face their most pressing questions on a Colombo pitch that will more than likely sit heavily in the favour of the local batsmen.
"That's always a big challenge, getting used to playing three games back to back, technically, mentally and physically so it's going to be a good test for them," Watson said. "That's the thing with Test cricket, it is a big test but they are holding up alright and Copeland is used to bowling a lot of overs in the forms he plays for New South Wales. Lyono will be ready to go, he is obviously still very excited about being able to play Test cricket so hopefully there won't be too much rain in Colombo and the wicket will break up more and bring him into that game."
Watson is not on the tour selection panel that now comprises Clarke and coach Tim Nielsen, but he favoured minimal changes to the team that had done everything within its power to secure the series in the first two matches. To keep a stable team, Watson reckoned, would be to help build the confidence and culture of a team that had taken plenty of hits in the preceding 12 months.
"My opinion is I would prefer to keep with a group that's doing really well," Watson said. "There's no doubt that's when you are able to continue to build as a team and the individuals within the team as well, the more continuity you get I think the better for everyone.
"On the fresh legs side of things I am not sure what will happen, I know what we have been able to do as a group bowling-wise has been very impressive. I think what we are building has been very exciting."
In Pallekele that building included Shaun Marsh, who now must wait to discover if he can keep his spot when Ricky Ponting returns.
"It's a great thing, something we haven't had too much over the last year or so really, pressure for spots even within our team," Watson said. "So that's a great selection drama to have within our team, because it means some guys are performing very well. There's no doubt Shaun being able to come in and bat No. 3 on debut and make the most of the opportunity is very impressive, to see the way he batted in his first Test, so it's definitely going to make selection very difficult."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo