India raid the fruit orchard

Maharoof: Sri Lanka can't let India reach 500 (3:03)

Farveez Maharoof believes Sri Lanka should be containing the run flow as the pitch will only get worse as the Test progresses (3:03)

At times it can feel like there is no tougher place in the world for visitors to begin an innings in than Sri Lanka. Not only can the tracks be treacherous and the spinners terrific, but when they are winning, Sri Lanka's fielders have had their own, singular way of intimidating oppositions.

Just ask Usman Khawaja, whose four innings last year brought him 26, 18, 11 and 0 - score diminishing with each knock. At times during the second Test in Galle, it felt like Khawaja would not be able to hit the ball even if he was holding a battleship instead of a bat. Adam Voges, who had come to Sri Lanka with an almighty average, looked like he had just been mugged every time he walked back to the dressing room.

Even greats have spoken about this experience - Brian Lara, who in 2001 had a better series in Sri Lanka than any batsman in history - has often said that facing Muttiah Muralitharan in his backyard, while new at the crease, was the greatest challenge Test cricket presented him. Most of the menace was of Murali's own making, of course, but where the threat Murali posed is spoken of, mentions of the men around the bat are rarely far. They yapped, they howled, they tossed the ball back and forth; they crowded a pitch the batsman was struggling to read, and cracked derisive jokes in a language he did not understand.

When peals of papare poured out onto the ground, and the cheering and dancing began in the stands, the struggling batsman seemed especially forlorn. It was as if he had done months' worth of preparation, and come many thousands of kilometers, just to be a prop in Sri Lanka's merrymaking. Incredible catches would begin to stick, and run-outs were pulled out of the clouds of dust rising from the pitch.

But that is when Sri Lanka are winning. When they are losing, as they have been of late, there may be no friendlier place in the world to settle at the crease.

Shikhar Dhawan edged two of the first seven balls he faced on Thursday, and appeared to be in some discomfort. But then, fifth ball of the second over, he flitted down the pitch, hit Rangana Herath over mid-on for six, and instead of seeing that shot for what it was - a new batsman trying to tonk his way to comfort - Herath and Dinesh Chandimal sent mid-on back to the boundary to discourage a repeat of that shot, and gave Dhawan an easy single next ball.

Dhawan, at least, had hit a rapid 190 in Galle and perhaps inspired some legitimate fear in the home side. But then what of Ajinkya Rahane? When he arrived, Sri Lanka had claimed two wickets in 8.1 overs, and not only had Cheteshwar Pujara recently caused a run-out, he had laboured to 27 off 85 balls. India's position, with the score 133 for 3, was uncertain. There was a period of about 2.1 overs when there were glimpses of that happy Sri Lanka team - hands flying to heads when the ball took the inside edge, fielders quipping to each other while bowlers built up dot balls.

But soon enough two fours were struck in quick succession, and the pressure was punctured. The transformation back to the beleaguered Sri Lanka side was swift. Where in happy times their pep withstands a few boundaries and aggressive opposition batsmen, this team is low on reserves of self-belief. Ajinkya Rahane came down the track to slam Malinda Pushpakumara down the ground, slapped Dilruwan Perera over midwicket next over, then hit Pushpakumara for another four. In a flash he was 21 off 23 balls. Pujara moved quickly into his slipstream and collected 36 off 26 balls for himself.

The remainder of the session was like a raid on a fruit orchard while the owners were asleep. There were fragrant half volleys here, ripe leg-side sliders there, and the plumpest short deliveries these batsmen will ever have feasted on. By tea, the pair had collected 105 runs from 115 balls, and a recently-besieged India were 238 for 3, hurtling again to a massive score.

"Rahane came and played very well," Sri Lanka coach Nic Pothas said at the end of the day. "He was very positive. From that point onwards we didn't perhaps execute as well as we had done up to that point. We were probably a fraction short on that wicket. The wicket is very slow and once the ball becomes soft you don't have as many many weapons. That was the turning session."

There was a little more control in the evening, but in spirit Sri Lanka were even flatter. Last year, there was obvious trepidation from each new Australia batsman who arrived at the crease. Here, R Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha might have been hinting to the batting pair it would be nice if some wickets fell, so they themselves could set about harvesting these runs.

But what can Sri Lanka do, really? Belief is not easily manufactured by a team that has been on the kind of losing run they have had in 2017. With the game quickly slipping from them, they may now need another of those miraculous innings or spells they have sometimes mustered over the past three years.

For now, they are props in India's merrymaking.