Zimbabwe 358 and 30 for 0 (Masvaure 15*, Mudzinganyama 14*) trail Sri Lanka 515 for 9 dec (Mathews 200*, Mendis 80, Raza 3-62, Nyauchi 3-69) by 127 runs
Angelo Mathews batted for ten hours to hit Sri Lanka's first double-century in five years, helping put his team in a near-unassailable position in Harare. But with Zimbabwe batting diligently so far in the third innings, the visitors have a tough road to victory. As it stood at stumps, Zimbabwe were 127 runs behind, with all ten second-innings wickets in hand. Although the occasional ball kept low, there was no substantial turn nor significant wear on the pitch to encourage the spinners.
At least Sri Lanka's batsmen have given their team a chance of victory however, with Dhananjaya de Silva and Niroshan Dickwella both hitting 63 through the course of the day. Zimbabwe's best bowler was debutant Victor Nyauchi, who dismissed de Silva, and finished with 3 for 69 from his 32 overs. Offspinner Sikandar Raza took two wickets in two balls in the third session, and eventually finished with 3 for 62, but those lower-order breakthroughs were not quite as hard-won as Nyauchi's.
Their openers then faced 17 overs without major incident. Prince Masvaure was solid in defence through 52 balls, the fatigue of two days in the field not weakening his concentration. Debutant and concussion substitute Brian Mudzinganyama was just as solid, playing out 51 balls of his own. He came into the game on account of a delayed concussion to another debutant, Kevin Kasuza, who had been hit on the helmet at short leg on day three, and on day four showed symptoms of a concussion, which ruled him out of the match.
Where on day three Mathews' progress had been a struggle, he was much more assured on Wednesday. Although Nyauchi beat his outside edge in the morning and offered a half-chance off Ainsley Ndlovu on 108, he seemed much more at ease, inching forward in the first session, then gradually growing more aggressive through the second and third sessions. Mathews has never faced as many balls as the 468 deliveries he did in this innings.
That he seemed fresh right until Sri Lanka's declaration, hitting a six off Ndlovu to get into the 180s, then completing the double-century with an aerially swept four off Raza, was a testament to the work he had put in over the last few months. In 2018, he had been dropped over fitness issues. There was no doubt he was in outstanding shape in Harare.
It was also fitting that it was Mathews who finally got to 200 after other Sri Lanka batsmen had perished in the 190s and 180s in recent years. Although at one point in his career he seemed destined to take the batting mantle from Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, his Test form had fallen away since 2016, while injuries forced long layoffs. Big runs for him on this tour augur well for a year in which his team play important World Test Championship series, Sri Lanka will hope.
Through the course of his mammoth innings, Mathews was involved in two partnerships that saw Sri Lanka take control of the Test. He and de Silva combined for 98 for the fifth wicket - de Silva making 63 of those runs, pulling and driving confidently through the early overs of that first session, until he holed out to mid-on, trying to raise the tempo against Nyauchi.
Dickwella then came to the crease and played with uncharacteristic care, hitting only one boundary in his first 87 deliveries, though he frequently picked up singles, twos and threes into the outfield to maintain a strike rate close to 50. He was dropped on 45 off the bowling of Nyauchi, but was out for 63 in the dying minutes of the second session, missing a sweep off the bowling of Raza, to be struck in front of off stump. He and Mathews had put on 136 together - Sri Lanka's most profitable stand.
Suranga Lakmal was also capable in partnership with Mathews, making 27, but became the first victim of Raza's double strike when he let a full delivery slip between his legs, and overbalanced to stumble momentarily out of the crease, only for Regis Chikabva to whip the bails off in a flash. Raza immediately bowled Lasith Embuldeniya with a delivery that straightened to miss the bat and hit off stump, and bowled a surprise yorker to Kasun Rajitha as well, who managed to dig it out just in time to prevent the hat-trick. Mathews, who was on 196 as Raza was threatening to leave him stranded so close to a double-hundred, finally got to the milestone in Raza's next over.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf