Sri Lanka blighted by batting disorder
Every time the bowlers have earned Sri Lanka a slim advantage during this series, the batsmen have found ways to let them down, at the crease and in the field
So far in the series, Sri Lanka's batsmen have lost their top five for less than 110 in four of five completed innings. They have been perplexed by spin. They have been cut down by seam. Their bowlers, meanwhile, have not conceded more than 400 in an innings, and more than 350 only once. They have won one match defending a small score. They have kept India's top order in check. Right through the past three weeks, every time they have earned Sri Lanka a slim advantage, their batsmen have found ways to let them down.
India had spoken about fielding five specialist bowlers in the first Test of this series, but Sri Lanka have probably never even considered it. That might seem wise at first, but in this Test, it's the lower order that has made the runs. Five bowlers is arguably not enough for Sri Lanka. If they stack the team with seven or eight, it would give Angelo Mathews options in the field, and surely, the team's batting will not get any weaker. Within a year or two this army of bowlers would probably even develop decent batting techniques. If a cucumber had been given as many chances at the top level as some of the young batsmen have, it would have probably found a way to last longer at the crease by now.
Fielding at fine leg on Monday, Rangana Herath ran around to settle under a difficult high catch - as tough as any Sri Lanka have taken in the series. Dhammika Prasad has also taken a fine diving catch in that fourth innings in Galle, and Tharindu Kaushal has been athletic off his own bowling as well as at backward point. Even in the field the bowling unit has set itself apart. All most of the batsmen have done is give easy catches behind the wicket, then drop easy catches, usually behind the wicket.
For a change, today's mandatory dropped catch came at short cover, after which Amit Mishra and R Ashwin added a further, frustrating 38 runs together. In first two Tests, Sri Lanka had dropped Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul before either batsman had reached 30. Both of them went on to make important first-innings tons.
The hosts' batting problems have been so dire in this series, that for this match, they've slighted the bowlers even further by relieving Dinesh Chandimal of the gloves, in the hope he will be more effective with the bat. Kusal Perera's batting is supremely fun to watch, but his keeping is not. He reprieved Virat Kohli in the first innings. In the 30th over of India's innings on Monday, Stuart Binny was so far out of his crease, he would have needed to carry supplies for the journey back. Still Kusal missed the stumping, and the batsman added 24 more to his score. It's not really Kusal's fault. It's the team management who have handed the Test-match gloves to a man who doesn't even always keep for his first-class side.
Sri Lanka fans love nothing more than defeating India, but with one day left in the series, they are left with only the tiniest sliver of hope, and a few minuscule crumbs of peripheral comfort. It has been encouraging that Mathews continues to prove himself one of the best batsmen in the world, for one. His final innings not yet done, he has outscored all the tourists in this series. Unlike the other batsmen, Kaushal Silva has been a decent close-in catcher as well, and his scoring rate has been on a gentle incline, though his runs have not been consistent.
There are also the Sri Lankan pitches, which have at least done their own part for the bowlers. The cricket has not always been high-quality, but as batsmen have been continuously tested, the watching has been good. There have been results in each of the seven most recent Tests on the island, and there should be another on day five, provided all 98 overs can be bowled. If fans can't say their cricketers are better than India's they can at least heap praise on their groundsmen.
As the home Test season comes to an end, Sri Lanka can be happy its attack has a future. Kaushal is raw, but gets the ball to dip and kick. Prasad has become the seam attack's colourful leader. Pradeep's bowling average keeps shuffling downwards. Even Dushmantha Chameera could become a decent Test bowler. The batsmen, so long pampered and persisted with, have been mediocre. They are less of a sure thing.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando