Colombo: Shaun Marsh justified Australia's decision to keep him at No.3 by making a wonderful 81, but Sri Lanka finished the first day with a slight edge in a match they must win to draw the series. A day that began with changes galore for both sides and an unexpected decision from Tillakaratne Dilshan to send Australia in on a good batting surface finished with the visitors at 235 for 5, with Michael Hussey the key.
The Sri Lankans would have liked more than five wickets after Dilshan's decision at the toss, when he expected seam movement after rain in the lead-up to the match, but they were still in a reasonable position with only Australia's bowlers still to bat. Hussey, demoted to No.6 to accommodate Marsh and Ricky Ponting up the order, was on 63 when bad light forced an early close and he had Brad Haddin for company on 21.
It was one of the most evenly-contested days of the series. The Sri Lankans picked up Australia's openers within the first ten overs, the seamer Shaminda Eranga getting a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket, before Ponting, Marsh and Hussey provided some fight for Australia. The major concern for Australia was the continued poor form of the captain Michael Clarke and the opener Phillip Hughes, who made a second-ball duck.
But the 70-run partnership between Marsh and Hussey, the centurions from last week's Pallekele Test, steered Australia in the right direction, both men showing the sort of composure some of their colleagues had lacked. Hussey continued to look impenetrable, covering the spin against Rangana Herath and driving the fast men along the ground, and he passed fifty for the eighth time in his past 13 Test innings.
Marsh was especially was impressive in his attitude, defending the good balls, leaving those he could, and choosing the right ones to put away. He brought up his half-century from his 125th delivery with a pull for four off Suranga Lakmal, and it was typical of his innings: a bad ball, and no risk in the stroke.
He played some wonderful straight drives and square cuts, and in doing so recorded the highest aggregate ever by an Australia Test player in his first two Test innings, passing the 208 made by Kepler Wessels back in 1982. Marsh looked set to become the first Australian to make a century in each of his first two Test innings when he played inside the spin of Herath and was bowled.
It was an uncharacteristic lapse, but on a humid day when he'd been at the crease for four and a half hours, it was understandable. There could be no such excuse for Clarke, who on 6 flashed at a wide ball - not for the first time in this series - and was caught behind off Eranga. Clarke had moved down to No.5 in the top-order shimmy that allowed Marsh to stay at first drop.
Ponting came in at No.4 for the first time in his Test career, apart from when nightwatchmen had been used, and he looked in fine form with a pair of cover-driven boundaries off Chanaka Welegedara. However, on 48, he too lost patience and drove at a fullish outswinger from Lakmal, sending a regulation edge through to Prasanna Jayawardene.
Sri Lanka had used up both of their reviews on Ponting, but they had no such trouble getting rid of Hughes and Shane Watson. Hughes fell in the second over when Lakmal angled the ball across the left-hander and straightened it just a fraction off the seam. The ball caught the inside edge of the bat as Hughes defended away from his body, and the stumps were rattled by a ball he could have left alone.
It was a disappointing effort from Hughes, who is viewed by the selectors as the long-term opening partner for Shane Watson but has not reached fifty in any of his past ten Test innings. Watson is also experiencing an uncharacteristic lean patch, and that continued when on 8, he drove hard at a full and wide delivery from Eranga and was snapped up at backward point.
It was a joyous moment for Eranga, who became the second Sri Lankan to take a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket, after Chamila Gamage in 2002, and the second man to achieve the feat in this series after Australia's Nathan Lyon. The inclusion of Eranga was one of a raft of changes to Sri Lanka's line-up for this Test.
Herath was included after missing the Pallekele Test due to a finger injury, and the Sri Lankans went for a more seam-heavy attack by dropping the spinners Suraj Randiv and Seekkuge Prasanna. They also axed the veteran batsman Thilan Samaraweera and brought in Lahiru Thirimanne, who will open, while Dilshan will move down to No.5.
Dilshan was full of surprises at the toss. It was the 12th occasion a captain had sent the opposition in at the SSC, but only twice has that decision led to a victory: both times against Bangladesh. Whether that becomes three times from 12 occasions will depend partly on how long it takes Sri Lanka to finish Australia off on the second day.