A brave fight-back by Zimbabwe's adhesive openers on the third day of the final Janashakthi National Test match saved the visitors the ignominy of following on and sent Muttiah Muralitharan to bed still dreaming of his 400th wicket.

Stand-in opener Stuart Carlisle and Trevor Gripper had frustrated Sri Lanka for three and a half hours as they posted a record 153 first wicket stand.

However, on the brink of tea, Sri Lankan skipper Sanath Jayasuriya lured Trevor Gripper out of his crease for a stumping that triggered an all too familiar collapse. Five wickets fell for 18 runs and suddenly Zimbabwe, still 47 runs adrift, looked unlikely to avert the follow-on.

But the experienced pair of Grant Flower and Heath Streak then batted out the remaining 84 minutes before the close, saving the follow-on in the process, to leave the visitors on 230 for five with their best chance of a draw so far in the series.

Indeed, Zimbabwean captain was bullish afterwards: "Who knows, we might be able to get in front of them and then the whole pressure will reverse. We will be hoping for a big partnership from Heath (Streak) and Grant (Flower) and than have Dion Ebrahim and Douglas Marillier still to come."

He was delighted with the spirit displayed by his side during the first three days: "It was very clear in our minds that we had to come out here in the third Test meaning business so that we could finish going in the right direction. There was plenty to gain with the forthcoming tour of India around the corner."

The key to the opening pair's success was twofold. First, the pitch may have powdered, but it was so slow and low that it was rarely dangerous, especially during the first half of the day after the deadening effect of the heavy roller before play.

Second, they learned from their early encounters against Muralitharan and employed a simple but effective strategy against the off-spinner. Rarely did they go back and only reluctantly was a big shot aimed. Patience was the key and they didn't give two hoots for the miserly run-rate.

Nevertheless, Muralitharan, wheeled away almost without a break as his team, the crowd and the sponsors, who had bedecked the stadium with celebratory balloons, willed him on to the 400 mark.

He bowled an exhausting 47 overs in the day with up to six squawky close fielders breathing down on the batsman's toes. He beat the bat frequently and greatly impressed umpire David Sheperd, who looked on eagerly like a child at his first magicians show, but increasingly looked unlikely to breakthrough.

At the other end Jayasuriya relied mainly on his pace bowlers, but they failed to swerve the old ball as dangerously as had been hoped and the Zimbabwean pair crawled onwards.

Zimbabwe scored 73 runs in the morning and then raised the tempo slightly in the afternoon, as they passed the previous best opening partnership of 113 against Sri Lankan compiled by Grant Flower and M.H. Dekker in 1994/5.

Zimbabwe's all-country first-wicket record (164 by Dion Ebrahim and Alaister Campbell against West Indies last year) also looked in danger as Carlisle moved past his previous Test best (62 not out) and Gripper plodded towards his second Test century.

But, belatedly, Jayasuriya decided the time had come for his skidding, low-armed darts. Gripper greeted him with a lofted drive before being stumped for 83 minutes before tea.

Suddenly, fresh life was breathed into the previously despondent Sri Lankans and Craig Wishart (1) succumbed when he shouldered arms to a straight ball from Jayasuriya.

After tea the slide continued. Carlisle was finally pinned to his backfoot by Muralitharan to be adjudged lbw for 64 and Jayasuriya had Gavin Rennie (7) snapped up at short led.

Five minutes later Andy Flower had edged Muralitharan to second slip - wicket number 397 - and supporters started preparations for the 400 celebrations. But, as Carlisle said afterwards: "They will have to put away their balloons for another day."