<
>

Centuries galore in Colombo as India suffer

It was callous, cold-blooded, almost cruel cricket. Sri Lanka's batsmen just ground on, hour after hour; resisting everything that India's weary bowlers could throw at them. Four batsmen scored centuries and the media scorer at the Sinhalese Sports Club ran out of columns. Whatever harsh words were said during Sri Lanka's Kandy Test post mortem clearly had the desired effect.

Sri Lanka started the third day of this decisive Test with a 89-run lead and by the time they finally declared, one hour before the scheduled close, they had extended it to 376 having scored 610/6 in their first innings, the second highest score in Sri Lanka's Test history. India then survived unscathed till the close, finishing the day on 28 without loss.

Two men dominated the day: Hashan Tillakaratne, a veteran left-hander who had spent two years fighting his way back into the side after being unceremoniously dumped, and Thilan Samaraweera, a rookie all rounder playing his first Test. Both scored unbeaten centuries and put together a record 194 run stand for the seventh wicket.

Tillakaratne, 34, was considered an unlikely starter before the game after looking out of sorts in Galle and Kandy. "Two years was too long out the game," people reasoned. He, though, provided a perfect response, just in the nick of time.

He started tentatively in the morning, content to partner Mahela Jayawardene, who had started the day serenely. The pair added 95 for the sixth wicket and gradually Tillakaratne grew in confidence. The nervous shuffle across his stumps soon gave way to more decisive footwork and the ball started to ping through the covers.

One commentator demeaned the innings. "The bowling attack was on its knees and the pitch was featherbed," he chuntered dismissively. Both were true, but he missed the point. Here was a man who had struggled for two years for this comeback opportunity against apparently insurmountable odds. Another failure and it would have all been over - a wasted effort and the end of a dream.

No, Tillakaratne was under severe pressure when he walked out to bat on Thursday evening. Twenty-three hours later, though, he had scored 136 not out from 214 balls and displayed all the attributes for which he was recalled. A natural accumulator he patiently consolidated Sri Lanka's position in the morning before twisting in the knife in the afternoon.

When he reached his century by sweeping Harbhajan Singh for three, his joy was unconfined. He was a man fulfilled and he raised his arms in triumph. His celebrations were elaborate, but no one could begrudge him for that. It was his seventh Test century and his first for nearly five years.

"I was tense beforehand having not had a good series so far," he admitted. "But I decided to play my natural game and tried to enjoy myself today. I needed to prove a point to myself that I could still perform at the highest level."

Samaraweera's situation was entirely different. The 24-year-old was making his first tentative steps in Test cricket and the burden of expectation was less. When he came to the wicket after a dubious leg before decision against Jayawardene, Sri Lanka were already streets ahead on 416 for six.

Nevertheless, it was a fine nuggety innings. He is known as an adhesive player and during the early part of his innings he was workmanlike, as he played second fiddle to Tillakaratne. He accumulated steadily and reached his fifty in the last over before tea after 113 balls.

Sri Lanka could so easily have then declared, with the lead already being 299. They, though, decided to wear down India even more and Samaraweera took charge, showing that he could more that occupy the crease, as he hit seven fours and marched to his century off just 62 more balls.

Sri Lanka coach paid tribute to him afterwards: "Thilan has always been a strong-minded cricketer, who gives the impression that he will make the most of any opportunity given to him. By the sheer weight of performance he has forced himself into the side and has yet again grabbed his chance."

Earlier in the day, Mahela Jayawardene, 24, had also completed his seventh Test century in his 33rd game, his third against India and his second in consecutive Tests. He reached it with a powerful pull-sweep and then climbed into the bowling, especially Harbhajan, who he knocked straight back down the ground.

He then faced the relative ignominy of being the only man dismissed in the day, when umpire David Orchard dubiously adjudged him to be leg before wicket to a leg spinner from Sairaj Bahutule. He had scored 139 from 216 balls.

It goes without saying that it was a tough day for India. Sourav Ganguly was forced to use seven bowlers in all and its safe to assume that they won't be pinning their bowling figures to their bedroom walls when they return home next week (John Wright may do though).

Four bowlers conceded more than a hundred runs and Harbhajan Singh was far from the threat that he had been cranked to be before the series. In fact, he was predictable and uninspiring and the keenly anticipated tussle between him and Muralitharan has proved to be a total nonevent, as he has taken just five wickets in his 98 overs in the series.

Thus, Sri Lanka now looks certain winners. It may not be that easy, however, to bowl out India because the pitch could actually be getting easier to bat on rather than worse. Muralitharan may not get the bounce that made him so potent in the first innings. Saving the match is extremely unlikely, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility.