India show fight but Jayawardene saves Sri Lanka

Most sensible commentators interpreted Sourav Ganguly's pre-match claims that "morale was good" and that "there was no reason to be down" as a valiant but forlorn attempt to save an injury ravaged team from total combustion. India had been soundly beaten on a grassy pitch in Galle and now faced a cocksure Sri Lankan unit, without their premier strike bowler, on an even livelier looking surface at Asgiriya International Stadium.

The Indian captain, however, proved as good as his word. The tourists, perhaps boosted by the good fortune promised by Lord Ganesh's Pooja, played themselves back into this three-match series as they grabbed the initiative in this crucial second Test by reducing the home side to 274 for nine at the close. There is still a very long way to go and Sri Lanka's total is already competitive, but their day still surpassed the modest expectations of many.

Sri Lanka, though, will feel a tinge of relief as they reflect on the first day's play. The Kandy hoodoo (six defeats in eleven games) has been lurking at the back of their minds this week and at one stage they looked to be in dire trouble having slipped 101 for four and then 138 for five.

Like he did in against England last March in similar circumstances Mahela Jayawardene fought back with a sublime century, full of effortless pulls and languid cover drives. He scored 104 from 149 balls and compiled crucial middle order partnerships with Hashan Tillakaratne, Suresh Perera, and Chaminda Vaas of 37, 51 and 43 respectively.

Even after the fall of Jayawardene, caught behind as he poked at an outswinger from Venkatesh Prasad, Sri Lanka continued to frustrate India with a 29 run ninth wicket partnership, full of forthright stroke play from Chaminda Vaas, who ended up the second highest run scorer with an unbeaten 42 off 61 balls.

Sri Lanka had made the worst possible start this morning when star batsman Sanath Jaysuriya was run out in the fifth over of the day. Jayasuriya had glanced to leg and immediately sensed the possibility of two runs. Marvan Atapattu, however, failed to notice his partner's urgency and settled for one. The Sri Lankan captain, running to the danger end, was left stranded.

Kumar Sangakkara and Marvan Atapattu responded positively. Indian coach John Wright keeps reminding us that 70 per cent of bowling is about "getting the ball in the right areas," but for the next hour the Indian bowlers appeared confused, with 70 per cent of the bowling being utter rubbish. They made the pitch look like a featherbed which it wasn't and rattled on to 58 for one after the first 70 minutes.

A timely downpour gave them an opportunity to regroup and when they returned, the bowling improved and the run scoring slowed. Then, just before the luncheon interval, Sourav Ganguly made an inspired bowling change: he brought himself on.

He bowled gun barrel straight - he also ran straight down the wicket and was warned twice by umpire Steve Bucknor - and wobbled the ball in the air. His first over was a maiden and in his second he struck a vital blow, as Sangakkara edged an attempted cover drive, having scored 31 from 51 balls, and Sadogoppan Ramesh held onto to an excellent catch in the gully.

In the next over, the last before the interval, Zaheer Khan returned for a second spell. Atapattu's batting had had a pre-destined air about it, as if fate had already informed him that his incredible success in Kandy was to continue (He averages 85 here and has already scored two double centuries), but Khan created a moment of indecision and the ball cannoned into his stumps as he tried to leave the ball at the last minute. Atapattu had scored 39 from 79 balls and Sri Lanka were 82 for three.

India continued with Ganguly and Khan after lunch and so well did they bowl that Harbhajan Singh was not required until the 47th over of the innings. Suddenly the ball was darting off the pitch and swinging through the air. Russel Arnold was dismissed for five as he edged a good length delivery to first slip and, when Prasad replaced Khan, Hashan Tillakaratne belied his reputation for studious accumulation with a reckless cut to be caught behind. Sri Lanka were 138 for five.

Jayawardene, who's first scoring stroke was a minimalist straight drive to the boundary, had played himself in carefully, but sensed the time had come to raise the tempo, or face a slow painful demise. Seeing the ball like a jackfruit he was merciless on the loose ball, waiting until the last millisecond before he caressed it into a vacant gap.

Speaking afterwards Jayawardene claimed the innings to be: "One of my best Test knocks if you take into account the conditions, which favoured the fast bowlers, and the fact that they bowled well." Tomorrow we will find out just how important it was.