Kumar Sangakkara swaggered out like a streetfighter looking for a brawl and batted with workmanlike efficiency to produce a near flawless hundred to take Sri Lanka two runs past India’s first-innings total, and psychologically some way ahead.
For India it was a day when the bowlers made the most of tough conditions with injuries and referrals restricting their potency. Had Sangakkara not been unbeaten on 107, India might have considered honours even. But now, it is Sri Lanka who will sleep easy.
Sangakkara is not the most graceful of batsmen, jabbing, punching and chopping at the ball but when on song, his timing is as good as anyone’s. Combine this with an ability to concentrate for long spells and a use of the forearms and wrists to keep the ball down even when driving on the up, and you have a tough customer.
The bowlers worked hard all day, picking up five wickets conceding 237 runs. Ishant Sharma steamed in over extended spells, before falling over; Harbhajan Singh tried to exert control over the scoring rate; Anil Kumble probed and Zaheer Khan tried to force breakthroughs in short spells.
Michael Vandort was put out of his misery by a Zaheer delivery that rapped pad. If India thought one wicket opened the door to another, they were raising false hopes.
Chaminda Vaas, the nightwatchman, stymied the Indians, blocking with irritating solidity and driving with unexpected elegance.
Vaas combined with Sangakkara in a 95-run stand that was broken when Vaas drove Harbhajan to cover.
India did well to send Mahela Jayawardene early, with the Sri Lankan captain sweeping from off stump and missing. Jayawardene challenged the decision but replays showed there was nothing wrong with Rudi Koertzen’s decision.
Thilan Samaraweera lived a charmed life, twice reprieved. On five, he was trapped in front by Kumble. The Indians referred the decision and the batsman looked dead in the water but the umpires thought otherwise. Then, on 11, he speared a ball off to short-leg which Gautam Gambhir snatched up. The umpire upheld Kumble’s appeal this time, but Samaraweera successfully challenged it.
Eventually, after he had added 60 for the fifth wicket, Samaraweera was caught behind by Zaheer.
Even as India were prising out wickets at one end, Sangakkara was playing the situation like a master. Barring one sharp chance to Rahul Dravid at slip, Sangakkara took no chances and offered no relief.
When the bowlers drifted wide, he left the ball alone, bringing down the bat only when indisputably sure there was no risk. The runs were not coming at a fast clip, but as is often the case in low-scoring matches, each one was at a premium.
Tillakaratne Dilshan helped garner another mini-partnership, of 43, pushing Sri Lanka steadily towards a lead. Dilshan buckled down to the task at hand and watched with appreciation as Sangakkara jabbed one to covers for the single that took him to his century.
Just before bad light halted play, India managed to prise out Dilshan, Kumble snapping up the lbw. Sri Lanka were just ahead.
But India had four men wounded and an immense amount of work to do if they want to walk away from this Test, and series, with the right result.