Over the next two days on a wearing pitch of variable bounce, India has a gilt-edged opportunity to have a crack at the ICC World No. 1 Test ranking.
Powered by a 154-ball hundred of contrasting phases by captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the host secured a massive 333-run first innings lead. India's mammoth 726 for nine declared is its highest total in Test cricket.
Facing three overs of spin in the second innings, Sri Lanka was 11 without loss at stumps on the third day of the third Test at the Brabourne Stadium. The visitors have a mountain to climb.
Earlier on Friday, a host of records beckoned Virender Sehwag and the crowd was expectant. However, the explosive opener fell seven runs short of a record third triple hundred, popping up a return catch to Muttiah Muralitharan.
Before Dhoni assumed centre-stage, there were handy contributions from Sachin Tendulkar (53) and V.V.S. Laxman (62); both the senior batsmen timed the ball sweetly.
Rahul Dravid, resuming on 62, was snared outside the off-stump by left-armer Chanaka Welegedara for a well-constructed 74. The Sri Lankan paceman had sent down a series of deliveries angling across Dravid from over-the-wicket.
The day belonged to Dhoni. His mind calm and stroke-play destructive, the Indian captain unleashed a few massive blows. He edged left-arm spinner Rangana Herath early in his innings between the two slips – this indicated the ball was turning – but batted with tactical nous.
He largely worked the ball around and defended with soft hands and struck the odd ball with force – Dhoni smashed left-arm spinner Rangana Herath over long-off for the maximum - during his first 50 that arrived in 96 balls.
The Indian captain, then, changed gears. Five off his six sixes in the innings were struck off Herath. He waltzed down the track to hoist the ball close to the sight-screen, cleared long-on and responded with a typically wristy on-the-walk six over mid-wicket when Herath slipped one on the leg-side.
In between, he pulled Welegedara beyond the ropes. Dhoni, refusing singles until the end of the over, manipulated strike during his unbeaten 56-run last-wicket partnership with Pragyan Ojha (five not out).
The Indian skipper blitzed to his third Test hundred with a booming blow over long-on off Herath; his strength and bat-speed enabled Dhoni strike long and hard against spin.
Kumar Sangakkara's captaincy was rather ordinary during this stage. While the absence of Muralitharan – the Sri Lankan legend seemed to have hurt his bowling fingers towards the end of the Indian innings - might have forced him to continue with Herath, Sangakkara did not really bring the field in to prevent Dhoni from grabbing a single towards the conclusion of an over. There was a gaping hole between bowler and mid-wicket.
Earlier, Sehwag's dismissal left the crowd disappointed. Given the nature of his batting on Thursday – he found the gaps with a surgeon's precision or thwacked the ball over the ropes – there were serpentine queues around the stadium in the morning.
Cricket on view was engaging. Muralitharan switched to round the wicket and Sehwag was foxed by a flighted delivery that straightened. Sehwag stays with Don Bradman and Brian Lara with two triple hundreds in Tests.
The complexion of the game changed after the blazing opener's departure; there appeared to be more bite in the surface and the close-in cordon came into the picture.
Muralitharan, bowling with heart, found some turn and bounce to scalp four. He has now gone past Imran Khan's 94 for most wickets against India in Tests.
Herath was luckless in the morning. Replays confirmed Dravid had nicked one spinning away and then Tendulkar, after watching a collection of deliveries turn away, seemed to have been done in by an arm-ball that skidded off the pitch; replays showed the ball hitting leg-stump. And the otherwise impressive Prassana Jayawardene squandered a stumping when Yuvraj Singh was caught out of the crease.
Batting held sway for most part. Tendulkar and Laxman whipped up some gorgeous strokes. Before he was castled by an off-cutter from Nuwan Kulasekara, operating with the second new ball, Tendulkar delighted the sizable gathering. The manner in which the maestro jumped out to Muralitharan, and then seeing the ball dip, checked his shot to beat the fielder at mid-on showcased his extra-ordinary ability.
And V.V.S. Laxman was all balance and grace as he on-drove left-arm paceman Welegedara operating over-the-wicket; the stroke is high on the scale of difficulty.
Subsequently, India lost wickets in pursuit of quick runs; the Sri Lankans held on to skiers. Then, Dhoni pulled his punches.
Sri Lanka (Ist inngs) 393.
India (Ist inngs): M. Vijay lbw b Herath 87 (121b, 10x4, 1x6), V. Sehwag c & b Muralitharan 293 (254b, 40x4, 7x6), R. Dravid c P. Jayawardene b Welegedara 74 (147b, 5x4, 1x6), S. Tendulkar b Kulasekara 53 (103b, 6x4), V.V.S. Laxman c Kulasekara b Muralitharan 62 (91b, 8x4), Yuvraj c Mathews b Herath 23 (42b, 2x4), M.S. Dhoni (not out) 100 (154b, 3x4, 6x6), Harbhajan b Muralitharan 1 (3b), Zaheer c Kulasekara b Muralitharan 7 (51b), S. Sreesanth lbw b Herath 8 (11b, 1x4), P. Ojha (not out) 5 (14b, 1x4), Extras (lb-3, nb-10) 13; Total (for nine wkts in 163.3 overs) 726.
Fall of wkts: 1-221 (Vijay), 2-458 (Sehwag), 3-487 (Dravid), 4-558 (Tendulkar), 5-591 (Laxman), 6-610 (Yuvraj), 7-615 (Harbhajan), 8-647 (Zaheer), 9-670 (Sreesanth)
Sri Lanka bowling: Welegedara 30-3-131-1, Kulasekara 20-1-105-1, Herath 53.5-2-240-3, Muralitharan 51-4-195-4, Mathews 6-0-36-0, Dilshan 3-0-16-0.
Sri Lanka (IInd inngs) T. Paranavitana (not out) 8 (15b, 1x4), T. Dilshan (not out) 3 (3b), Total (for no loss in three overs) 11.India bowling: Harbhajan 2-0-7-0, Ojha 1-0-4-0.