Can the hill country folk of Kandy have ever been so richly entertained? For the first half of the day the Indian fast bowlers scythed through the Sri Lankan batting and in the afternoon, hometown hero Muttiah Muralitharan thrashed a comical half-century that put his side firmly in the box seat at the end of the third day of this second Test.

It was an astonishing day. Zaheer Khan and Venkatesh Prasad bowled their hearts out, taking nine wickets between them, as Sri Lanka slumped from 52 for one to 124 at lunch and then lost four wickets in 33 balls in a postprandial slumber to leave them on 157 for nine, with a lead of just 199.

In 76 crazy minutes, however, Muralitharan and last man Ruchira Perera swung the game emphatically back towards Sri Lanka with a 64-run partnership for the last wicket, which was a record for the wicket against India and the equal highest of the game. Sterile statistics, though, do not tell the real tale.

It was the manner in which Muralitharan scored his first ever firstclass fifty, 67 runs off 65 balls, which included three sixes and four fours, that brought the crowd, which swelled to nearly 8000 as news of Muralitharan's heroics spread through the town, to hysterics and India's players to their knees in frustration.

He strutted to the wicket to a standing ovation and then taunted the tourists like a chief clown. His strokeplay mixed outlandish heaves, full-blooded pulls and exaggerated defense ­ he even padded up to Ganguly eight yards down the pitch, much to the bowlers verbal disgust. In between balls he rehearsed a startling array of innovative strokes and in between overs he exercised his novel right to request refreshment and a rub down from the 12th man.

When Ruchira Perera walked in to bat, Muralitharan was only on 11, but he took firm command of the situation as Ganguly bizarrely pushed eight fieldsmen back onto the fence, surely the first time that the Lankan spin ace has been handed such respect while he was batting. Psychologically and tactically the plan backfired as Muralitharan cleverly farmed the strike. He refused to take ones until the final two balls of the over, but managed to scramble the odd two and belt an occasional boundary. When he was finally caught on the long off boundary India needed 264 runs for victory.

It is a testing target. England only limped home by three wickets when asked to chase 160 in Kandy last March and Sri Lanka lost to South Africa by seven runs when they were bowled out for 169 here last year. This pitch has not crumbled like those two surfaces, however, which should give India hope.

India's openers survived the new-ball by the skin of their teeth, especially Shiv Sunder Das (19), who looked fortunate not to be adjudged leg-before wicket by Chaminda Vaas on two occasions before he had scored. He was also bowled off a no ball of Vaas, who bowled superbly in his seven over burst (7-5-6-0).

Das and Sadogoppan Ramesh (13*) had added 31 for the first wicket before Sanath Jayasuriya threw the ball to Muralitharan. Das pullswept him to the mid-wicket boundary, but the off spinner deceived the right-hander with his straighter delivery in his third over to leave India on 42 for one.

They lost no further wickets before bad light stopped play at 6.05pm with India on 55 for one with 209 still required, but Muralitharan created enough problems to suggest that he holds the key to this match tomorrow.

Were it not for top scorer Muralitharan then Sri Lanka would in all probability have been heading towards their third successive defeat in Kandy, as the Sri Lankan top order crumbled under the pressure exerted by Zaheer Khan in the morning and Prasad in the early afternoon.

Khan struck with his third delivery of the day, which brushed the outside edge of Kumar Sangakkara's (13) bat and was neatly taken by wicket keeper Sameer Dighe.

Mahela Jayawardene and Marvan Atapattu, who scored 45 from 88 balls, added 32 runs for the third wicket, before Prasad had Atappatu caught behind to leave Sri Lanka on 84 for four.

Ganguly bowled a short two over spell without success, but quickly called back Khan who then dismissed first Test centurion Mahela Jayawardene (25) in the slips and trapped Russel Arnold (4) leg-before wicket with a ball that nipped back off the seam.

Hashan Tillakaratne (16) and Suresh Perera (15), both of whom are fighting for their places after an unsuccessful series thus far, also put up some resistance for 50 minutes either side of lunch, adding 21 further runs.

Venkatesh Prasad then took over the mantle from Khan. Swinging the ball away from the right handed Perera he caught the edge of Perera's flashing blade and Hemang Badani redeemed himself for an earlier miss with a sharp left handed catch at second slip.

Tillakaratne had been shuffling across his stumps throughout his innings and had survived several close leg-before appeals before Prasad trapped finally trapped him in front with an inswinger. Prasad then quickly followed up with the wickets of Dilhara Fernando and Chaminda Vaas to secure his seventh five-wicket haul in his 32nd Test and set the stage for Muralitharan's theatrical performance.