Sri Lanka 295 for 4 (Mathews 92*, Mendis 80, Nyauchi 2-38) trail Zimbabwe 358 (Ervine 85, Embuldeniya 5-114) by 63 runs
Angelo Mathews and Kusal Mendis led Sri Lanka's steady progress on day three, as the visitors finished just 63 runs adrift, with six wickets still in hand. They lost a wicket in each session on what was a still placid Harare Sports Club surface. The most likely route to a result in this Test may be for Sri Lanka to establish a big lead in the first innings, then dismiss Zimbabwe cheaply.
While Mathews started slowly, making only 18 runs off his first 61 deliveries, Mendis ticked the score over through the first session. Although both batsmen were tetchy against Zimbabwe's seam bowlers, who got more lateral movement off this surface than Sri Lanka's quicks had, they were confident against the hosts' spinners, who even by the end of the day had failed to seriously impose themselves on the match. Mendis was ruthless on errors of length in particular, favouring the slap-pull that is a hallmark of his game.
He reached fifty off the 118th ball he faced - a slower rate of scoring than is typical for Mendis, but understandable given the nature of the surface, and the fact that this was his first half-century in four Tests. Soon after, he would surge into the 60s, by hitting three consecutive fours off Sikandar Raza's first over, as the bowler repeatedly bowled either too short or too full. Mendis' eventual dismissal came against the run of play, as he drove at a full, wide delivery from Victor Nyauchi, and edged the ball to wide slip. He had made 80 off 163 deliveries.
By the time Mendis was dismissed, Mathews had settled a little. Although he played and missed frequently at the start of his innings, and had also been nervy between the wickets, he had applied himself admirably despite all this, and was 36 off 119 balls when he got a new partner. He continued to bat sagely, defending more-or-less impeccably, though waiting for only the most egregious bowling errors to attempt a boundary. When he got to fifty, off the 154th ball he faced, he had hit three fours and a six - every one of those off a spin bowler. In fact, he'd only hit one four off the seamers the entire day, a beautifully timed flick off his thigh off Donald Tiripano in the 96th over. He ended the day eight runs short of a well-deserved century, though his strike rate was down at 36.
Zimbabwe will perhaps feel that they should have got more than three wickets for their own perseverance on this docile pitch. They beat the bat of virtually every Sri Lanka batsman, and debutant Nyauchi was particularly threatening in the morning session. He had opposition captain Dimuth Karunaratne flicking aerially to short midwicket in the first session - Ainsley Ndlovu taking an excellent low catch. He also dismissed Mendis shortly before tea, and later finished the day with 2 for 38 from 22 overs, his economy rate an outstanding 1.72.
The only wicket that didn't fall to Nyauchi in the day was that of Dinesh Chandimal, and that was a stroke of extreme luck. Chandimal had deadbatted his way through most of the 31 deliveries he had faced, when he attempted to push a Sean Williams ball down the ground, but only managed to hit it on to his boot. The ball then leapt up towards Williams, who snaffled it and appealed for the catch. Replays suggested the ball had not hit the ground thanks to Chandimal's boot. He was out for 12.
That dismissal was partly the result of Zimbabwe delaying to take the second new ball, as Chandimal was dismissed in the 82nd over. They did eventually take the new ball after 88 overs, but Dhananjaya de Silva seemed at ease at virtually everything Zimbabwe threw at him late in the day, and progressed to 42 not out off 73 balls.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf