Sri Lankan spinners struck back with three wickets to check India’s surge after opener Shikhar Dhawan smashed a century on the opening day of the third and final Test on Saturday.
The left-handed Dhawan hit a 123-ball 119 before becoming left-armer Malinda Pushpakumara’s second victim at the Pallekele International cricket Stadium.
India were 235-3 at tea with skipper Virat Kohli on 11 and Ajinkya Rahane on three. Kohli won the toss and elected to bat first in their bid for a series sweep.
A 188-run opening stand between Dhawan and Lokesh Rahul, who made 85, took India through the first session without losing a wicket against a hapless Sri Lankan attack.
Sri Lanka captain Dinesh Chandimal then rotated his spinners in the second session and India lost three top batsmen in just 11 overs.
Rahul, who scored his seventh consecutive Test fifty, was the first to go after mistiming a drive to mid-on off Pushpakumara.
Rahul joins Everton Weekes, Andy Flower, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Kumar Sangakkara and Chris Rogers in the list of batsmen who have made seven consecutive 50-plus scores in Tests.
Left-arm wrist spinner Lakshan Sandakan sent Cheteshwar Pujara back to the pavilion for eight after the batsman edged the ball to slip.
Hosts Sri Lanka will be hoping for a change in fortunes when they take on an Indian side brimming with confidence in the third and final Test of the series at Pallekele on Saturday.
Virat Kohli’s men have been on top throughout the series and Sri Lanka will be hoping that a lush green pitch at the Pallekele International Stadium can arrest the slide.
With veteran spinner Rangana Herath and pacer Nuwan Pradeep sidelined with injuries, Dinesh Chandimal has a tough task at hand leading a side already short of experience at the highest level.
As the hosts look to avoid a whitewash, we look at the two key battles which could decide the Pallekele Test.
With a green pitch on offer from Saturday, the bowling attack which can best utilize the conditions on offer will have a huge say in the outcome of the Test.
While India’s Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav have looked threatening in spells on flat pitches in Galle and Colombo, they will be buoyed in their hopes of taking bundles of wickets on the lively Pallekele pitch.
The conditions will allow Kohli to unleash the swing and accuracy of Bhuvaneshwar Kumar as the third seam option. With a potent three-seam attack, the visitors will be mighty confident of toppling the Sri Lankan batting order.
The hosts on the other hand will likely be going in with a seam attack which has a combined total of 14 Test appearances between them. Lahiru Kumara will most likely be joined by Vishwa Fernando and Dushmantha Chameera in the pace-attack after Pradeep’s injury.
With such an inexperienced attack, Chandimal will be hoping his new faces can spring a surprise on the much vaunted Indian batting line-up. If they can’t, it could end up as an embarrassing whitewash for the hosts in their own backyard.
Centuries from Kusal Mendis and Dimuth Karunaratne in the second innings of the Colombo Test were the only silver linings for Chandimal’s men in a comprehensive innings defeat.
A batting-order still reeling from the departures of legends like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene will need to step up their game to give Sri Lanka any chance of taking the game to the Indians.
Mendis has continued to build on his initial promise and the fact that his highest Test score of 176 came at Pallekele bodes well for the right-handed batsman. Karunaratne, on the other hand, is the fourth highest run-getter in the calendar year and will look to continue in the same mould.
It is the other experienced batsmen like Upul Tharanga, Angelo Mathews and Chandimal who will have to add some solidity in the batting after a mixed showing so far in the series.
If the older heads in the Sri Lankan dressing room can contribute in a more meaningful way, we might have an even game on our hands as the Indian batting-lineup continues to pile up the runs.
Sri Lanka on Thursday named a 15-man squad led by Dinesh Chandimal for the third Test against India, which has taken an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series.
Selectors said right-arm fast bowlers Dushmantha Chameera and Lahiru Gamage were brought into the squad in place of injured Nuwan Pradeep and Rangana Herath.
The hosts will be trying to avoid a whitewash by India at the match starting at Pallekele on Saturday.
Dinesh Chandimal (captain)
Dananjaya de Silva