Third Test

Sri Lanka v Australia

Paul Coupar

At Sinhalese Sports Club, Colombo, March 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 2004. Australia won by 121 runs. Toss: Australia.

Within two hours of Australia completing the clean sweep, referee Chris Broad stated his suspicion that Muralitharan's wrong'un was a throw, and the game itself was almost forgotten in the roar of the reignited chucking debate. Broad, the former England Test batsman, claimed to have seen one particularly suspicious delivery during this match; many suspected he had made up his mind previously and delayed the announcement to minimise disruption to the series.

It was not a bad game, but it suffered for being the last of an already-settled rubber. Australia were again in deep trouble, in effect 92 for five in the second innings, but by now they had amply proved their mental superiority under pressure. So it proved again. Langer and Katich built a do-or-die double-century stand, and the bowlers cut down the last Sri Lankan wicket in the penultimate over. Followers of the series were starting to feel like children jaded by Boys' Own comics: no matter how close the scrape, there was an inevitability about the outcome. "We need to show a bit of character when the going gets tough," said Tillekeratne as he pre-empted the selectors by resigning.

The opening three days were played in an eerie near-silence in front of a tiny crowd scarcely more animated than the travelling fans' inflatable wallabies. On the first, a nonchalant century by Lehmann gave Australia control. He was helped by a willingness to use his feet, by Ponting's punchy 92 and by Tillekeratne's cautious captaincy. By the afternoon, the spinners, including Muralitharan, had retreated to defensive 7-2 leg-side fields, on a pitch offering slow but significant turn. Murali took five wickets, but, in essence, was contained. The humidity was appalling, and Lehmann used his bat as a walking stick as well as a weapon. Even he admitted he was sometimes bored. Sri Lanka then cancelled out Australia's 401 and took a lead of six. They came out hitting on the second afternoon and reached 50 by the eighth over. Early on, the seamers dropped too short, and later they could not get the ball dry enough to reverse-swing it. But in the first over of the third morning, Gillespie took two in two balls with brutes that slanted in and seamed away, and Kasprowicz snaked an inswinger through Atapattu's drive, ending an elegant century. An imposing 240 for two became 256 for five. But Tillekeratne dug in. There was a bizarre attempt to remove him, when Ponting appealed for hit wicket: replays showed the bail knocked off by Langer, who had crossed the wicket to change fielding position as the batsmen ran a single. He claimed obliviousness and was cleared of bringing the game into disrepute, fuelling the Sri Lankans' sense of injustice when Broad later reported Murali.

On the fourth morning, Australia's second innings was on the verge of collapse at 98 for five. But the resilience of their batting was now assuming almost superhuman status: they did not collapse. Langer, lucky to escape when caught at short leg on seven, and Katich, in his first Test of the series, were immovable and added 218 in 65 overs. Langer struggled badly, with the humidity, with his own poor form and with crippling cramp. He began, as so often, by scratching like a chicken in a farmyard but eked out 166 in six and three-quarter hours. He had spurred himself on, he later said, by repeating to himself Allan Border's famous goad to Dean Jones in Madras in 1986-87 - "Go off if you like... we'll get a real Australian out here." Katich's five-hour 86 was more assured. Australia set a target of 370 just before the end of the fourth day. Victory for Sri Lanka was unlikely, a draw was not. But, despite stout resistance, they fell agonisingly short. With 40 overs left, Samaraweera and Jayawardene had defied the dusting pitch and reached 156 for two. But fortune smiled on Australia: as if Warne wasn't enough to cope with, Jayawardene, like Jayasuriya before him, got a bad decision. And after tea Warne finally broke through with four wickets. It had been grim work because of the heat, because Ponting was reluctant to crowd the bat and because there was no second main spinner. But Kasprowicz, persevering and perspiring, finally took the last wicket with eight balls left. It was a suitably close end to the least one-sided of whitewashes.

Man of the Match: D. S. Lehmann. Man of the Series: S. K. Warne.

© John Wisden & Co