Prasanna Jayawardene might well curse himself all through Wednesday night. Had the Sri Lanka wicketkeeper not dropped a dolly off Sachin Tendulkar's edge mid-way through the third day's play, the hosts might have been smelling a victory to seal the series by the end of the day.
Instead, Tendulkar (108 not out) went on to register his 48th Test century and along with debutant Suresh Raina (66 not out), taking India closer to safety. At stumps, India were 382 for 4, chasing Lanka’s huge total of 642 for 4 declared. Though India still needed 61 runs to avoid follow-on, if Tendulkar and Raina, who have already put on 141 runs for the fifth wicket, see off the early overs on Thursday morning, the match will virtually have been saved.
The only foul stroke off Tendulkar's blade came in the second session, when the master batsman tried to glide a short ball by Dilhara Fernando over the slip cordon.
But he could only manage an edge and Jayawardene inexplicably failed to garner a regulation collection behind the stumps. India were 225 for 3 then, still 218 adrift the follow-on mark. From then on, it was a magnificent display of patience and class from Tendulkar. Not only did he keep the strike rotating, but when he saw a loose ball — whether it was from Ajantha Mendis, debutant offspinner Suraj Randiv or Fernando — he sent it to the fence.
While he was cautious for a while, as Raina got his eye in after VVS Laxman (29) perished off Mendis, he cut loose with a six over long-on off Randiv to cross his fifty.
And the master completed his deserving century with a sweep shot off the same bowler that raced to the boundary five overs before stumps.
Earlier in the morning, Virender Sehwag (99) and Murali Vijay (58) continued from where they had left on Tuesday evening. Both scored freely off all the bowlers on a wicket that didn't offer much, till Sehwag again threw it away.
When the opener was one run shy of his fourth century in as many Tests, skipper Kumar Sangakkara threw the ball to Randiv for the first time in the day and the offie sent down a straight one to Sehwag. The dashing opener charged down the wicket, tried to heave it on the leg side, missed it and the keeper did the rest.
From 165 for no loss, India were reduced to 173 for 3 in the space of 29 balls. Randiv trapped Vijay in front of the wickets in his next over and soon after, Rahul Dravid (3) fell, courtesy a dubious lbw decision off Mendis.
But Tendulkar and Laxman then steadied the ship and avoided a collapse. Though Laxman looked far from convincing, his 116-minute stay at the wicket ensured India did not have a collapse like the one at Galle last week. And Raina then paired with the master to take all the fizz out of the Lankan bowlers.