A maiden Test century from Kumar Sangakkara and a dramatic second innings collapse by the India's top order in the evening left Sri Lanka on the verge of an emphatic victory in the first Test at the Galle International Stadium on Thursday.
India had come back briefly in the morning, when they took Sri Lanka's last seven wickets for 68 runs, but they still conceded a 175-run lead and then folded up feebly in the second innings, losing seven wickets for 83 runs in an extended evening session. Sri Lanka requested the final half hour, but bad light stopped play with India on 130 for eight.
Sri Lanka, then, have paved the way for only their second Test victory against India in their 20-year Test history. The last time was in Sri Lanka's inaugural Test triumph at the P.Saravanamuttu Stadium back in 1985.
More importantly, they have grabbed the initiative in a congested series and now have a good chance of winning their first Test series in 16 months. With just four days rest before the second Test in Kandy, India face a huge mental and physical challenge if they are going to come back into the reckoning.
Sadagoppan Ramesh (2) set the tone for India's reply. His feet stuck to the crease like stone, he groped at a full-length outswinger from Ruchira Perera and lost his off stump. India went into tea on 26 for one.
After the interval, the wheels came off. Shiv Sunder Das (23) flat batted a catch to point, Mohammad Kaif (14) was caught at short leg off Muttiah Muralitharan, and captain Sourav Ganguly missed a straight delivery from Dilhara Fernando. India were 64 for four.
By now Muralitharan was going in for the kill and Sri Lanka's close fielders converged around the bat in excited anticipation. His job made easier by the early wounds inflicted by the fast bowlers, he bowled a 17 over spell, picking up four wickets in the process.
Hemang Badani (5) was adjudged to have been caught behind, though replays suggested the ball had only brushed the pad; Sameer Dighe (3) was scooped up by a predatory Russel Arnold at silly point; and Harbhajan Singh was teased by his fellow artisan before being deceived in the air to give a return catch.
Sanath Jayasuriya nearly finished the game off before the 6.39 close. He had Zaheer Khan caught at silly point with the first ball he bowled and then narrowly failed to take the final wicket (Javagal Srinath is not expected to bat because of a badly swollen left hand), when Mahela Jayawardene flung himself to his left, but was unable to grasp a sharp chance.
Meanwhile, Rahul Dravid batted defiantly for nearly three hours. He remained unbeaten till the close on 37, but without support from his partners, his efforts will prove futile, unless, of course, it rains for two consecutive days.
The morning was dominated by Sangakkara. A law student who tries to cram in his studies in between international commitments, he started the day on 54. Whilst wickets fell around him he extended Sri Lanka's 77-run overnight lead and remained unbeaten to the end, batting for 226 balls and six hours in searing temperatures for his 105.
Sangakkara had scored four Test fifties already in his short Test career, including a rearguard 98 in South Africa and an exhilarating 95 during a tense Test against England in March, but was under extreme pressure in this game after a string of low scores in the one-day game and a scratchy series against Pakistan A.
He is a free flowing stroke maker by nature, but impressed in this innings with his adhesiveness and determination. During each break in play, he practiced studiously, drilling balls into the sight screen beside the dressing room. He looked diffident and circumspect last afternoon and was dropped once when he had made eight, but he kept his composure and gradually grew in confidence.
By the end though his batting was imperious. It had to be too. When Chaminda Vaas was seventh man out, Sangakkara was still 28 runs short of his hundred with a fragile tail exposed. He went on to the attack, pulling and cutting anything remotely short. He was strong off his legs too, slickly clipping the ball off his pads.
Then, Fernando drove straight to short cover like a coach giving fielding practice and Ruchira Perera only lasted two balls before he guided a short ball into the gloves of Sammer Dighe. Muralitharan strode to the crease, wielding his bat like an offensive weapon, with Sangakkara still eight runs short.
Muralitharan nobly refrained from playing his most unorthodox swipes, but Sangakkara's heart was in his mouth every delivery. Eventually he got his chance and lofted a good length ball from Srinath straight down the ground for his hundred. Muralitharan could contain himself no longer and he was promptly caught on the square leg fence to end the innings.