Stumps Sri Lanka 227 for 7 (K Mendis 53, Mathews 50, Dickwella 39*, Lakmal 28*, Ajaz 5-76) trail New Zealand 249 (Taylor 86, Nicholls 42, Dananjaya 5-80, Lakmal 4-29) by 22 runs
Ajaz Patel hasn't had the bowling opportunities he'd like when back home, but when he's been called upon overseas since his debut late last year, he's generally been a machine that delivers sharp-spinning deliveries mixed with dollops of drift and subtle changes in lengths.
On surfaces like in Galle that offer bite, he can be more than a handful, as Sri Lanka found out on Thursday. His second Test five-for triggered a slide, Sri Lanka slipping from a comfortable 143 for 2 to 227 for 7 at stumps. They still trail New Zealand by 22, leaving the Test wide open after a pulsating 12-wicket day.
The usually flamboyant Niroshan Dickwella battled against his own instincts at times to occupy the crease and finish the day with an out-of-character 39 off 74 balls. Suranga Lakmal, who swung the game away from New Zealand early in the morning with a magnificent spell of 4 for 15 in 5.2 overs, held fort for 79 minutes to make 28 not out. They combined to add 66 in 24.1 overs to frustrate New Zealand's spinners, who at one stage looked like they would give their batsman a bigger cushion to work with.
Kusal Mendis' dismissal with the tea interval four minutes away started the slide. He is solid when he wants to be, but often has a tendency of playing a shot or two too many at inopportune moments. He didn't score a single boundary after drinks in the second session and significantly slowed down after a bullet train-like start. This approach earned him a well-deserved half-century, but looking to blast Ajaz's teaser through cover, he nicked to the slips and New Zealand, who at that point were probably starting to wonder if they would be staring at a deficit, were back in the game.
Then the other Kusal - Perera - got in and three quiet deliveries later, attempted to cut a short ball from Trent Boult, except this one got big on him and cramped him for room as the ball lobbed to point. He was gone for 1. Suddenly, a game where neither side appeared to have conceded the advantage to the other swung in New Zealand's favour; Sri Lanka committing the same mistakes New Zealand did - losing wickets in clumps - on the opening day against spin.
Then came the wicket of half-centurion Angelo Mathews, who was done in by a fine cocktail of drift, dip and turn from Ajaz. Reaching out to drive one that wasn't quite there, only to see Ross Taylor lap it up at slip.
These moments of madness came on the back of a solid middle session for Sri Lanka where Mathews and Mendis stonewalled New Zealand's spin threat. In a 20-minute passage on either side of drinks, Sri Lanka found scoring tough, managing just eight runs in ten overs. Mathews met the ball with a full forward stride, but there was a sense that he may have been going into his shell. Then came two long hops off Tim Southee, which he hit for boundaries to break the shackles. The first of the two was a short ball thumped through point and the second a neat little tuck off his hips to the fine-leg boundary. Now, all revved up, he turned ultra-aggressive when he lofted Mitchell Santner over long-off, and cleared the ropes despite not hitting it well. But, by then, the stranglehold New Zealand seemed to have built around the Sri Lankans after reducing them to 66 for 2 had eased.
Towards the end of the session, Kane Williamson, perhaps realising the importance of this stand, brought back Boult for a crack after a first spell of five overs that went for just seven. This didn't make much of a difference as he struggled to move the ball or cause much ruffle, forcing Williamson to alternate between Will Somerville and Ajaz, and the move worked as they scythed through the lower order to leave Sri Lanka gasping, until they were saved by the Dickwella-Lakmal stand.
In the morning, New Zealand unravelled rather dramatically in the face of an excellent Lakmal spell after resuming on 203 for 5. Lakmal claimed the prize wicket of Taylor for 86 with his first ball of the morning, and then went on to deliver a spell that yielded 4 for 15, as New Zealand lost their last five wickets for 46 runs. Attempting a cut to a short-of-a-length Lakmal ball close to his body, Taylor gave a straightforward edge to the wicketkeeper. Santner didn't last the first half hour either, shouldering arms to a Lakmal indipper that would have gone on to clip the stumps had it not struck pad.
With both recognised batsmen out early in the day, it was up to New Zealand's tail to provide some sort of resistance, but only Boult succeeded for any reasonable length of time, hitting a six and a four on his way to 18 off 22 balls. He eventually holed out trying to hit Lakmal for another six down the ground, before No. 11 Ajaz was out lbw first ball, attempting a leg-side flick. New Zealand's innings wrapped up soon after drinks.
Sri Lanka had 13 overs to bat out before lunch, and in that time lost opener Lahiru Thirimanne. After the interval, they lost Dimuth Karunaratne, who played back to a quicker delivery from Ajaz to be lbw. The stage was set for the middle order to step up, and though Mendis and Mathews did their job, the stumble came on cue, leaving the Test in the balance.