On a surface likely to offer increasing assistance to the spinners, the first Test is in the balance after an engrossing second day's play at Motera here on Tuesday. Riding on a captivating 133-ball 112 from opener Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sri Lanka was 275 for three at stumps. Earlier, India has been bowled out for 426.
Towards the fag end of day two, leg-spinner Amit Mishra extracted turn and bounce raising hopes in both the camps. Batting will demand technique and application.
Much hinges on the opening half-an-hour on day three; there is likely to be assistance for the pacemen during this brief period. India will seek to break the threatening partnership between Mahela Jayawardene (36 batting) and Thilan Samareweera (45 batting).
The two joined forces at 194 for three after skipper Kumar Sangakkara, battling hard until that point, unwisely hooked paceman Zaheer Khan to Sachin Tendulkar at the fine-leg fence.
Using their feet and the crease, Jayawardene and Samaraweera batted with much skill and heart in a pressure situation. Jayawardene sashayed down the track to dump an off-colour Harbhajan Singh over the
wide long-on fence. The smooth-stroking Samaraweera danced down to ease Mishra through covers.
Earlier, Dilshan held centre-stage. The normally aggressive right-hander was circumspect early on, even as his left-handed opening partner Tharanga Paranavitana outscored him. Gradually, the gifted Dilshan opened out.
Dilshan presents a daunting challenge to the bowlers because there are two very different aspects to his batsmanship. He can rely on hand-eye coordination to dismiss the ball to the far corners with minimal feet movement. The Sri Lankan is also capable of executing correct cricketing shots with proper footwork.
Consequently, the bowler is unsure about the length to bowl at while operating at Dilshan. Add to all this, Dilshan's ability to pick the length in a jiffy and run-making appears ridiculously simple. He does pack a punch with his back-lift and bat-speed.
Much of Dilshan's cover-driving, off either foot, was breathtaking; the ball streaked to the fence on a fast outfield. Both Zaheer and Ishant were driven for boundaries. When Harbhajan Singh flighted one outside the off-stump, Dilshan leaned into a exemplary cover-drive.
He was also whipping deliveries to open spaces on the on-side, which indicated the Indian attack was not quite bowling to its field. Dilshan rotated the strike and ran hard. Dilshan innovates and creates and a few shots with soft hands – a steer and paddle stroke – also adorned his innings.
He reached his tenth Test hundred with a cracking square-cut when Ishant Sharma served one short and wide. Dilshan's celebration reflected his desire. Not long after, he succumbed to Zaheer.
The experienced left-armer had employed the short-pitched stuff against Dilshan with the new ball. The Sri Lankan can be a compulsive hooker and Zaheer had men at the fine leg and the square-leg fence.
There was also a fielder stationed at the point boundary for the upper-cut. The Sri Lankan looked at other scoring options. In fact, the ploy succeeded only after Dilshan went past his second Test century as an opener.
Zaheer smartly went round-the-wicket to the right-hander and Dilshan perished – the dismissal ended his 115-run second-wicket stand with Sangakkara - attempting a pull from outside the off-stump.
Zaheer mixed his short-pitched stuff with fuller length balls. But then, there was little swing, either conventional or reverse, for the left-arm spearhead in the hot and dusty conditions.
His pace partner Ishant Sharma was a mixed bag. The opening up of his bowling elbow before release could be resulting in Ishant's wrist not being straight enough as he delivers the ball. And an ideal wrist position is essential for a paceman to hit the seam.
On the rare occasion when Ishant got it right, Ishant angled one across Paranavitana (35 off 55 balls) for Mahendra Singh Dhoni to pluck a fine, low catch in front of first slip.
In the morning, the last four Indian wickets added just 41. Rahul Dravid did not add to his overnight 177. Impressive left-armer Chanaka Welegedara's full-length in-swinging ball from over-the-wicket lured Dravid into playing on.
Harbhabhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan essayed a few spunky strokes; Zaheer survived a Dammika Prasad beamer before the bowler promptly apologised.
Left-arm spinner Rangana Herath dismissed Zaheer with an arm-ball to end the association; replays showed the ball missing leg-stump by a whisker. And Muttiah Muralitharan brought the innings to a swift conclusion.