Sri Lanka's batting finally comes good

Tharanga Paranavitana celebrates his half-century Associated Press

This might easily have been the day that ended the series. When Michael Clarke declared Australia's innings closed at the overnight tally of 411 for 7, all he required for an innings victory and an unbeatable 2-0 series lead was a Sri Lankan top-order display consistent with their prior performances in this series. What he received instead was a far spikier batting performance from a team that was on its very last chance to gain a foothold against the visitors, and last perhaps to avoid a raft of reactive changes to a transitional team.

Clarke's declaration was made with the weather in mind - rain was predicted to cause significant disruption to the final two days of the Test, and threatening clouds ringed the ground more than once while 79 overs were bowled on the fourth day. He must also have reasoned that the morning air had been the most useful for bowlers seeking wickets, having yielded five wickets before lunch on the first day and the opportunities for more on the second and third. There was some early movement to be found, and Ryan Harris beat Tharanga Paranavitana three times in succession in the first over with his nasty habit of hinting at movement one way through the air then getting it to go the other way off the pitch.

For the first time all series the early deviation wrought by Harris and Trent Copeland did not bring a gaggle of Sri Lankan wickets, as Paranavitana and his captain Tillakaratne Dilshan fought their way through the initial Australian spells, on a pitch that offered them more in the way of hope provided their bats came down straight to meet the ball. Dilshan's innings was ended by a characteristically rash swing at Harris in the shadows of the lunch interval, but he had at least managed to give Kumar Sangakkara at No. 3 something to build on - for once Sangakkara walked out without having to glimpse the manufacturer's logo on a still-new ball.

That there were no more chances for Sri Lanka to assert some kind of influence on the series was beyond question. Dilshan himself had stated the case with a passionate public address on the first evening, after his men had been splintered for 174 on a surface that had many more runs in it. Sri Lankan cricket is in a state of unease, whether it be financial, strategic or tactical, and the team's lack of fight for most of the series had been deeply unsettling for those who had become used to strong performances over the five years that spanned the captaincies of Mahela Jayawardene and Sangakkara. While Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas have left vast holes in the bowling attack, there are no such manpower excuses for the batsmen.

"Definitely there is something wrong in the batting," Dilshan had said. "We are talking, discussing, we are doing a lot of hard work in training and we are discussing a lot of things, but now is the time to deliver. We can't say the wicket is bad. They've bowled really well but we've played the last series in England, where there was a better attack, and on a difficult wicket we batted really well. Now the players should put their hands up and deliver, they have to deliver, now is the time, we can't wait anymore."

The example was set, as it had been in England, by Paranavitana, who is not a stylish player but shows a strong willingness to fight out his innings. It was he who had hurried the collapse on the second day in Galle by setting off for a run that Jayawardene could not complete. The burden of that dismissal weighed heavily on Jayawardene in the second innings of that match, and Paranavitana exhibited a desire to atone for his part in the mix-up once he was past the perils of Harris.

His dismissal, burgled out by Michael Hussey - the man of the series to date - brought Jayawardene to the crease to join Sangakkara. So much of Sri Lanka's success has been built around the two of them that the failures in the first three innings of this series had a lot to do with the fact that only once had either passed 50. But it is also instructive to note that they have never had much success in Test match partnerships together against Australia. As the most prolific batting pair in Sri Lanka's history, it stood to reason that eventually Sangakkara and Jayawardene would get themselves in together against an Australian attack that for all its determination and planning, and the leadership flair of Clarke, lacks the fearsome armoury of previous teams. More composure with the bat in Colombo and Sri Lanka can hope to place Australia under the sort of scoreboard pressure that made them wilt during the Ashes last summer.

The hosts were still trailing by 109 runs when Jayawardene walked to the crease, but the two former captains set about their work with purpose, frustrating Australia, who had more overs to attack Sri Lanka in the day than they would have predicted when the clouds first rolled in towards Pallekele in the morning. The second new ball remains a threat, but some more sturdy work on the final morning and Sri Lanka may yet have a chance of reviving their tilt at the visitors. Victory in the final match would mean a drawn series and Sri Lanka's retention of fourth spot in the ICC rankings. Such a conclusion remains a long way off, but now there is hope for the hosts, and a contest for Australia. A day ago both were decidedly lacking.