India finished the third day of the final Test 14 runs ahead but had all but handed the match and the series to Sri Lanka. Effectively 14 for five, India need a miracle similar to the one at Eden Gardens in 2001 from the original saviours — Laxman and Rahul Dravid —who were at the crease with the rest of the batting in tatters.
Ajantha Mendis’s dream debut series got better with him reaching 25 wickets, the highest ever by a debutant in a three-Test series, beating Alec Bedser’s tally of 23 in England in 1946 against India. Muttiah Muralitharan, almost unnoticed, has 20 wickets.
For two of the Fab Four, the tour ended on a note so low one wonders just what sort of reaction awaits them in India. Sourav Ganguly limped to 95 runs in the series, managing 18 in the second innings in a confused effort.
Unsure just how to take on the bowlers, Ganguly blocked hesitantly, every now and then cutting loose with a big shot.
In monotonous fashion, he opened the face of the bat against Murali, sliding a catch to Mahela Jayawardene, but the skipper could not latch on.
It didn’t cost the hosts too much as Ganguly planted his foot down the pitch to sweep Murali and missed. The ball struck the pad low, and though the ball had almost three metres more to travel the third umpire did not provide any information that made the standing umpire change his initial decision.
Parthiv Patel, sent out at No. 5 to give Sachin Tendulkar’s aching elbow some more rest, had little chance against Mendis — encountering the mystery spinner for the first time, Parthiv wa trapped in front.
Effectively, Parthiv’s innings had delayed Tendulkar’s arrival by only three minutes and the manner in which Tendulkar took off, late cutting and paddle-sweeping, one wondered why he did not come out earlier.
Tendulkar survived two consecutive lbw appeals and referrals, dangerously offering pad to Murali. Sri Lanka had exhausted their quota of three unsuccessful reviews by then and Tendulkar allowed himself a premature smile.
In the very next over, he shouldered arms to a Mendis googly that pitched on off and came in. The little man was so palpably plumb he seemed embarrassed to ask for the review but did so on Dravid’s prompting, to no effect. Tendulkar's Lanka sojourn had come to an end, yielding only 96 runs from six knocks, with Brian Lara’s record scarcely under threat.
India had lost three middle-order wickets in the span of only 23 runs, and that was always a danger once the openers had been disposed off. Once again Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir managed a 50-plus stand after Sri Lanka were bowled out with a lead of 147. Sehwag was the first to go, slashing Dammika Prasad to gully. Gambhir did not last much longer, also falling to the debutant pacer.
Unlike the first innings though, India did not have to wait till the last wicket for their second serious partnership.
Dravid, batting with more assurance than he has all series, managed to smother the spin and pick off the pacers for runs. Laxman, with Gambhir as runner, crunched the first ball he faced towards mid-off and played his shots even if this resulted in the occasional miss.
The two had added 30 for the fifth wicket, pushing the match to the fourth day. Just how the remainder of the match plays out depends on how quickly Sri Lanka can wrap up the bottom half.
The hosts will be hoping they do better than India, who allowed Sri Lanka’s tail add 145 invaluable runs.
Prasanna Jayawardene added runs to an impressive keeping performance and Prasad underscored the value of his selection with positive stroke-making. All that seemed a distant dream for India when the day ended, with the only common thread being Sri Lanka’s continued dominance.