With the mercurial Virender Sehwag running hot, the third Test is on the boil. Once again, the punishing opener was high on octane and low on sympathy for the bowlers.
Powered by Sehwag's spirit-lifting unbeaten 97 (87b, 17x4), India was 180 for two at stumps on an eventful second day at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium here on Wednesday.
The in-form Sachin Tendulkar was on a solid 40 at stumps. Sri Lanka still has an edge but the Test holds interesting possibilities. The surface seemed to be playing slower on day two.
Earlier, Thilan Samaraweera held centrestage with an unconquered 137 of flair and substance. The Indian bowlers, though, rallied well to dismiss Sri Lanka for 425 in the first innings.
Sri Lanka will look back at a missed opportunity when Sehwag, on 52, struck one back to seamer Angelo Mathews. The caught and bowled chance was grassed.
Otherwise, Sehwag was on the rampage. During his stroke-filled essay, Sehwag crossed the 7000-run mark in his 134th Test innings. Only the legendary Walter Hammond has achieved the feat quicker – in 131 innings.
But then, Sehwag's batting travels beyond numbers. He expresses himself with such freedom in the cauldron that situations matter little to him. And the psychological impact of Sehwag's batsmanship is immense. The bowlers are dismissed to all corners of the ground, the fielders chase leather and the pitch appears to play easier. Mentally, the opposition takes a pounding.
Fiery slinger Lasith Malinga did probe Sehwag with the new ball, mixing his yorkers with the short-pitched deliveries. The Sri Lankan paceman stationed a short-leg and a leg-gully as he got a few balls to climb at Sehwag. The ploy did not work.
Sehwag targeted Chanaka Welegedara. In fact, he toyed with the left-arm paceman's bowling, slashing, cutting, punching and whipping him to all parts of the ground. Also on view was an incredible flat-batted hit off a short-pitched delivery; the ball streaked through mid-off and Welegedara watched in disbelief.
While Sehwag's footwork has often come under scrutiny, what lends balance and weight to his batting is a still and a steady head. He picks the length early and has this instinctive vision about the gaps.
Sehwag batted with panache while taking on Ajantha Mendia although he survived an anxious moment against off-spinner Suraj Randiv; Sehwag played forward but the ball almost bounced back on to his stumps.
Earlier, opener Murali Vijay suffered a lapse in concentration to be held at extra-cover off Malinga and Rahul Dravid, batting fluently until that point, played across a ball angling in from Mathews.
India was in trouble but Tendulkar defended and collected runs with the confidence of a master. And Sehwag drilled holes in the field.
In the morning, Samaraweera made a well-deserved 12th Test century. His batsmanship is wrapped in old world charm. This was an innings where he blended caution with judicious aggression. The Sri Lankan used the depth of the crease in an exemplary manner.
His back-cut off left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha streaked to the fence. There were occasions when he deliberately disrupted the line of the bowlers - the slog-sweeps off Mishra hurt the leg-spinner.
When the pacemen provided him a hint of width, he cut and slashed. And if the ball was slightly over pitched, he off-drove and flicked with great hands.
Samaraweera displayed sparkling footwork. He skipped down the pitch, created room, and struck Ojha for a sweet six overs covers. The inside-out shots on the off-side are another feature of his batsmanship.
While Samaraweera dominated one end, the Indians picked up wickets at the other. To his credit, Ojha turned in an improved display. With the wicket providing him a measure of help, the left-arm spinner appeared more relaxed in his approach and stuck to the basics. He did bowl with greater control.
Angelo Mathews (45), batting well in the morning, was done in by a slider from Ojha. The all-rounder played outside the line to be adjudged leg-before. Prasanna Jayawardene attempted to sweep Ojha but the ball spun from leg to trap him in front. Helped by the breeze, Ohja was also getting the ball to drift slightly.
There was some success, finally, for leg-spinner Amit Mishra when he foxed Lasith Malinga with a googly to hold the return catch. A promising leg-spinner, Mishra appeared to be fighting demons within. Mendis offered dogged resistance with the bat while Samaraweera gathered runs at the other end.
Eventually, Ishant Sharma ended the Sri Lankan innings with a couple of short-pitched deliveries. Ishant impressed in spells. Abhimanyu Mithun bowled zestfully but without any luck.
Scoreboard: Sri Lanka (Ist innings): N. Paranavitana c Dhoni b Ishant 8 (15b, 2x4), T. Dilshan (run out) 41 (70b, 4x4), K. Sangakkara c Sehwag b Ojha 75 (114b, 5x4, 2x6), M. Jayawardene lbw b Ojha 56 (154b, 3x4), T. Samaraweera (not out) 137 (288b, 12x4, 1x6), A. Mathews lbw b Ojha 45 (84b, 6x4), P. Jayawardene lbw b Ojha 9 (41b, 1x4), S. Randiv c Dravid b Sehwag 8 (30b), S. Malinga c & b Mishra 4 (4b, 1x4), A. Mendis c Raina b Ishant 3 (41b), C. Welegedara c Dhoni b Ishant 4 (3b, 1x4), Extras (b-8, lb-4, w-7, nb-16) 35; Total (all out in 138 overs) 425.
Fall of wickets: 1-15 (Paranavitana), 2-102 (Dilshan), 3-157 (Sangakkara), 4-241 (M. Jayawardene), 5-330 (Mathews), 6-359 (P. Jayawardene), 7-381 (Randiv), 8-386 (Malinga), 9-421 (Mendis).
India bowling: Mithun 22-2-78-0, Ishant 23-6-72-3, Mishra 42-3-140-1, Ojha 46-10-115-4, Sehwag 5-0-8-1.
India (Ist innings): M. Vijay c Mendis b Malinga 14 (35b, 2x4), V. Sehwag (batting) 97 (87b, 17x4), R. Dravid lbw b Mathews 23 (26b, 5x4), S. Tendulkar (batting) 40 (66b, 5x4), Extras (b-1, w-1, nb-4) 6, Total (for two wkts in 35 overs) 180.
Fall of wickets: 1-49 (Vijay), 2-92 (Dravid).
Sri Lanka bowling: Malinga 11-1-52-1, Welegedera 9-0-65-0, Mendis 7-1-32-0, Mathews 4-0-13-1, Randiv 4-0-17-0.
Keywords: India-Sri Lanka Test series