Tea India 553 for 7 (Saha 59*, Jadeja 37*) v Sri Lanka
India lost their centurions, one at the start of play, and the other about half an hour to lunch, in a manner that suggested Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane had heard the calls from the dressing room that they were hogging all the fun. Once they relented, a strong lower order – with an allrounder at No. 9 – took their total past 500 for the ninth time in little over 12 months. Sri Lanka did have a few moments to celebrate, of course – four to be exact – but their own batsmen might eye the pitch with suspicion. It had begun puffing up clouds of dust like a steam train from the sixties.
Regardless, the lower order with the best average since the start of 2016 continued to attack the bowling. R Ashwin got off the mark with an airy boundary behind point. He pierced gaps at cover that seemed non-existent. And with a six over long-off, he asserted his place among the best in the business. Only 15 allrounders have claimed 2000 runs and 250 wickets in Tests. Ashwin reached there quicker than anybody else, in 51 matches.
Wriddhiman Saha had watched a team-mate being stumped after haring down the track, but that had no bearing on his move to do the same and swat his fourth ball to the long-on boundary. He is a sensational player of spin because of his ability to both sweep and stride down the pitch. He can then choose to attack or defend or nudge gaps – which were available aplenty as the total swelled monstrously.
India have scored a hundred or more in four of the five sessions at the Sinhalese Sports Club, and the only time they couldn’t, they’d already racked up 98. The carnage almost spilled over, once in the 131st over and then in the 149th, when after berating the bowlers, Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja took aim at umpire Rod Tucker with blistering straight drives. Thankfully his reflexes were spot on.
R Ashwin contributed again with the bat © AFP
Sri Lanka began the morning a bowler short – Nuwan Pradeep, the only specialist seamer and taker of six wickets in Galle, was down with a hamstring injury. And to make up for his loss, they gave their opening batsman the second new ball. Dimuth Karunarante responded with a nip-backer that pinned Pujara in front of the stumps in the second over of the day for the first wicket of his career. He only had to wait 41 Tests, and the time it took to overrule umpire Bruce Oxenford’s on-field decision by DRS.
So the man who had struck three centuries in three matches in this country, bested Dhammika Prasad on a green seamer in 2015, and Rangana Herath on this soon-to-be dust bowl, fell to a man who was bowling for only the second time in Test cricket. It was a bit like Pujara had leapt over the alligators in the moat, squeezed into the gap just as the draw bridge closed, slid down it with his arms raised aloft at a successful breach only to crash headlong into a guard sleeping against the wall.
So Rahane took the lead of the invasion, progressing smoothly until he found fit to attack debutant Malinda Pushpakumara in the 111th over. Three balls previously, the left-arm spinner had pushed one past the outside edge, and in an effort to reverse the pressure, Rahane danced down the track only to be deceived in flight and then mugged by sharp turn. Pushpakumara screamed as only a man who had until then been treated like a defective Herath clone could. It was his first Test wicket, his 559th in first-class games.
The original was starting to struggle too. Short balls from Herath once seemed like a set-up – like when someone points at your chest and screams “what’s that?!” before flicking your nose. But now they are just reminders that the great man is nearly 40 years old and is perhaps not putting as much body into his action as he used to. The evidence of the purchase he can elicit when he does so was apparent in the 122nd over, when a quicker delivery beat Ashwin’s late cut and crashed into his off stump. It was clocked at 91 kph by the speedgun, the exact pace Jadeja likes to bowl, and this is rapidly becoming the kind of pitch he can rather effectively exploit. Sri Lanka’s batting line-up, bolstered by the return of Dinesh Chandimal and Dhananjaya de Silva, will have a lot of work to do.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.