It looked all India at one stage, but Sri Lanka, led by spinners Malinda Pushpakumara and Lakshan Sandakan, helped the hosts claw back into the game. India were buoyed by Shikhar Dhawan’s blitzy century, and his 188-run stand alongside KL Rahul, but lost their next six wickets for 134 runs to lose the advantage. By Stumps on the opening day of the third Test at Pallekele, India were 329 for 6.
Inside the first hour, Sri Lanka had four players out in the deep. Inside the first hour, they had put down two chances, one of each Indian opener. Inside the first hour, Sri Lanka rested their hopes on a part-time pacer who had bowled less than hundred overs in First-Class cricket. By the end of the first hour, it started to increasingly look like the Pallekele Test would follow the template India had set in the last two.
But Sri Lanka launched a terrific fightback in the next two sessions, first ending a marathon 188-run stand between Rahul and Dhawan and then taking five more wickets to end the day at a decent position.
Having won the toss for the third straight time, India made full use of good batting conditions to rocket away to a superb start. Rahul and Dhawan both survived early lives, and capitalised on their opponents’ mistakes to put the visitors on top. Dhawan was his usual fluent self, immensely helped by a lacklustre bowling attack that kept feeding to his strengths.
Rahul at the other end was more circumspect, but was still playing freely as India scored at close to five runs an over. Dinesh Chandimal, the Sri Lankan captain, too lacked imagination in his captaincy and quickly resorted to defensive fields, allowing both batsmen easy singles all around the wicket.
Dhawan continued to be adventurous, using his feet and sweeping the spinners, while the pacers kept dishing out freebies from time to time. The Barmy Army chant used to unsettle Mitchell Johnson – ‘He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right; that Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is sh*te’, could very well have fit in with Lahiru Kumara. The youngster was all over the place and struggled to maintain any sort of pressure on the batsmen. It was not as if either opener tried to be particularly harsh against the bowler, but the hit-me balls kept coming their way.
Dilruwan Perera was brushed away after an initial spell, and Chandimal stuck to Lakshan Sandakan, who was one of the three changes Sri Lanka made for this game, and Malinda Pushpakumara to prise out a wicket. For close to three hours, that wicket looked as challenging as climbing Mount Everest. It was almost as if Sri Lanka had resigned themselves to hoping that the batsman will get out bored. And that is exactly what happened.
With India’s score at 188, the highest ever opening stand against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, Rahul decided to step out and smash Pushpakumara over the top. He only ended up skewing it to Dimuth Karunaratne at mid-on. Rahul was out for 85, his seventh consecutive fifty in Tests – equalling the world record, and had thrown away yet another opportunity to make a big hundred.
Dhawan did not make the same mistake, he went on to notch up his sixth Test hundred off just 107 balls, a knock that also contained 15 hits to the fence. He added two more to his tally before he got out trying to get a third. Dhawan swept a fairly innocuous Pushpakumara delivery straight to Chandimal at square leg, who took a sharp catch, as India lost their second wicket.
Sandakan joined the party soon after, getting Pujara to edge behind to slip, and Sri Lanka had somehow restored parity. A little more application from the Indian batsmen could have seen them truly pound their opposition to the ground, but the hosts weren’t complaining.
Ajinkya Rahane looked all at sea against Sandakan and scraped to 17 off 47 balls before playing all around a straight delivery and giving Pushpakumara his third wicket. Virat Kohli had gotten his eye in at the other end, and looked set to bail India out of trouble. He shared a 32-run stand with Ashwin, but fell in the final hour, edging Sandakan to slip on 42.
After the first hour, Sri Lanka looked in all sorts of trouble, but by the time the last hour was being played, they had managed to claw themselves into a good position. India were 296 for 5, and needed their lower order to bail them out. Ashwin and Saha were involved in a stand worth 26, but Vishwa Fernando ended that late in the day, getting Ashwin caught behind for 31.
India still have a couple of good batsmen to bail them out, and also boast of a tail that wags. If Sri Lanka don’t nip the rest of the innings in the bud quickly, the game could be back to following the template it has over the last two Tests.
Brief scores: India 329/6 (Shikhar Dhawan 119, KL Rahul 84; Malinda Pushpakumara 3-40, Lakshan Sandakan 2-84) vs Sri Lanka.