Ravichandran Ashwin and Rohit Sharma struck valuable half-centuries to make amends for wobbly top-order batting and leave India pushing for a series-clinching victory over Sri Lanka in the final Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground in Colombo on Monday.
Ashwin top-scored with 58 before being the last man out, after Sharma made 50, as India were 274 all out into the final session, leaving Sri Lanka chasing a massive fourth innings target of 386. The hosts were then reduced to 67 for three at stumps, after Ishant Sharma struck twice early.
Although India's hopes of ending a 22-year wait for a series victory in Sri Lanka brightened, the mood was soured after heated exchanges between India's No. 11 Ishant and Sri Lanka paceman Dhammika Prasad and Dinesh Chandimal. The players were separated by the umpires who also spoke to captains Virat Kohli and Angelo Mathews during the change of innings.
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Reduced to seven for three overnight, Sharma (50), all-rounder Stuart Binny (49) and Naman Ojha (35) all chipped in to dash Sri Lanka's hopes of producing another dramatic turnaround as in the first Test at Galle, which they won by 63 runs after trailing by 192 runs in the first innings.
India had clinched a 111-run first innings lead, after dismissing Sri Lanka for 201 and they put themselves in a position to win. Mathews (22) and opener Kaushal Silva (24) played positively until play was stopped due to bad light at 5.40 pm.
Kohli and Sharma held firm against the Sri Lanka seamers in the morning, raising a crucial 57-run fourth wicket partnership. Kohli fell for 21, paying the penalty for playing away from the body to nick to slip for the second time in the match.
Sharma, criticised for lack of application, was watchful and didn't play any extravagant shot until he opened up to hit Nuwan Pradeep through cover off successive deliveries. He (72 balls, 4x4, 1x6) played steadily as Stuart Binny scored freely at the other end, the two adding 54 runs for the fifth wicket.
But with the lead a modest 229, and having reached his fourth Test fifty the previous delivery, he top-edged a hook off a Prasad bouncer straight to deep backward square leg.
Binny and debutant Naman Ojha pushed the score, and although both fell, Amit Mishra (39) and Ashwin put on a 55-run partnership for the eighth wicket to put pressure on the hosts.
Wicketkeeper Kusal Perera, who dropped Kohli in the first innings, missed an easy stumping of Binny on 25, Herath being the bowler, and Mathews then dropped Mishra on 18 off off-spinner Tharindu Kaushal.
Sri Lanka have a formidable record at the venue. Out of 38 Tests played here before this Test, they have won 18, lost six with 14 drawn. Their last defeat at the SSC was in 2004, when Australia bowled them out for 248 after setting a fourth-innings target of 370.