Mahela Jayawardene's monumental unbeaten 204 of skill, desire and application has handed Sri Lanka a gilt-edged opportunity to achieve its maiden Test victory on Indian soil.
Lacking intensity and retreating to a defensive mode too soon, India failed to secure a wicket in the last two sessions of the third day of the first Test at Motera. The Indian bowling, bereft of accuracy, failed to create any kind of pressure.
Roaring along, Sri Lanka was 591 for five at stumps on Wednesday; this is the island nation's highest Test score in India. The visitor’s will seek to drive home the advantage.
Kumar Sangakkara's men lead by 165 runs with two days remaining. Although the pitch – it has been a slow turner so far - favoured the batsmen on the third day, roughs are visible on both ends of the track and the surface is turning increasing dusty.
The threat of Muttiah Muralitharan looms large and the Indian batsmen may need to play out of their skin to save the Test. This has been a match where Sri Lanka has found men for the occasion.
After the free-stroking Angelo Matthews was adjudged caught bat-pad at short-leg off Harbhajan Singh at the stroke of lunch – there was considerable doubt about the correctness of the decision – wicketkeeper-batsman Prasanna Jayawardene displayed rare resolve.
Mahela and Prasanna have added an unbeaten 216 runs for the sixth-wicket in 387 deliveries. Prasanna, who struck just four boundaries in his 186-ball 84, worked the ball around capably. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's deep set fields allowed easy singles and twos. Perhaps, the Indian skipper had no other option. His bowlers pitched on both sides of the wicket.
For Mahela, it was a day of triumph. A natural riding on his shot-making ability, he concentrated hard in hot and dusty conditions, facing 339 deliveries.
Mahela's maiden hundred on Indian soil was his 27th three-figure innings in Test. He progressed serenely to his sixth Test double century.
It can also be argued that Mahela's high-quality batsmanship forced the bowlers, the spinners in particular, to lose the plot. Mahela's footwork and soft hands make him a compelling batsman. He is both a touch artist and a hard-nosed innings builder - a rare combination.
The Sri Lankan does not destroy an attack as much as he dissects it with rapier-like shots that seem to find the gap instinctively. And Jayawardene can convert the length, whether waltzing down the track or staying back and playing the ball as late as possible.
Indeed, Dhoni was poised to collect the ball on more than one occasion when Jayawardene caressed it behind the man stationed at point. He was forcing the spin duo to alter their line, bowl to his strengths. Given the manner the inventive Jayawardene was using the depth of the crease for strokes on the off-side, Harbhajan shifted to a middle-and-leg line. He was, consequently, a lesser bowler.
If Jayawardene's marathon innings under a blazing sun reflected his strength of mind, three delectable boundaries in a Zaheer Khan over before lunch underlined his shot-making skill.
Jayawardene straight-drove the left-arm paceman, then essayed the flick before launching into a picture perfect cover-drive. This was inspirational batsmanship.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni erred by not employing at least one paceman in the morning. The pacemen had struck in the first half-an-hour on the first two days.
Perhaps, Dhoni wanted Zaheer and Ishant fresh for the new ball, which was ten overs away. A combination of pace and spin might have been a better idea.
Mishra did threaten briefly. His leg-spinner found Jayawardene's edge but the ball fell short of slip. The leggie also had a worthy shout for a leg-before decision turned down when Thilan Samaraweera missed a googly.
However, Mishra was too slow through the air for most part and his bowling lacked resolution and the resultant dip. Zaheer, though, bowled a zestful over with the second new ball, beating Samaraweera outside the off-stump and troubling the batsman with well-directed short-pitched deliveries.
Soon, Samaraweera (70, 145b, 9x4) was spectacularly held by a leaping Yuvraj Singh at square-leg when the Sri Lankan launched into a pull against Ishant Sharma. The lanky paceman showed signs of improvement but lacked consistency.
The fact that Mishra bowled a negative line from round-the-wicket with a packed leg-side field in the last session told the story. The Sri Lankans have been winning the mental duel in the Test.