Colombo: It took until the third-last day of the series, but Sri Lanka finally delivered all the way through their batting order as Angelo Mathews, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene made half-centuries to grind Australia down at the SSC. Throw in a handy 46 from Prasanna Jayawardene and the 79 that Kumar Sangakkara completed on the third morning, and it made for a long, hot day in the field for the Australians.
But as the Australian bowlers walked off the field at stumps, ready to collapse into ice baths, they knew that their hard work had been worth it. Led by the indefatigable Peter Siddle and Trent Copeland, Australia prised out four wickets throughout the day on a pitch offering little to no assistance, and at least kept their side in the hunt for a draw, which would be enough for Australia to take the series.
By the close of play Sri Lanka had extended their lead to 112 runs, with Mathews looking solid and unbeaten on 85, and Shaminda Eranga, the first of the tail-enders, on 5. With two days to play, Sri Lanka needed to work out their best route to victory; a quick and significant increase in their lead on the fourth morning could be crucial to that goal. Much will depend on how well Australia bat on a friendly surface.
The Australians could have had Eranga late in the afternoon, when on 1 he edged behind off Copeland and was dropped by Brad Haddin standing up to the stumps. It was a strange move by Haddin to the new batsman, who as a debutant in the side as a bowler, was hardly likely to charge down the crease to a seamer like Copeland.
But it was Mathews the Australians really wanted to remove. He has been one of the standouts for Sri Lanka in a series that up to now was notable for their below-par batting. Mathews is Sri Lanka's leading run scorer in the series, an outstanding achievement considering he batted at No.7 in the first two Tests, and it was no surprise that he was promoted to No.6 for this game.
He played sensibly, reaching his half-century from his 119th delivery with an on-drive to the boundary off Peter Siddle, and he generally picked the bad balls to put away. In the first two Tests, an occasional loss of patience had been his one weakness, but there were no such lapses in this innings, as he kept on task until the final ball of the day. By the close, a maiden century was within sight.
Mathews had had ample support throughout the day, first from Dilshan and then from Prasanna Jayawardene. His stand with Prasanna was worth 81, as Prasanna put aside his poor batting record against Australia. He pulled two powerful sixes off Nathan Lyon, who struggled for impact, but fell when he drove Copeland on the up to Michael Clarke at short midwicket.
The Sri Lankans found Copeland difficult to get away, even if he didn't pile up the wickets. He sent down 18 overs during the day, five of which were maidens, and picked up 2 for 36. He had collected the key wicket of Dilshan, who seemed set for a century when he was caught behind for 83 by Haddin, again standing up to the stumps.
It wasn't a pretty take, as Dilshan tried to guide the ball to third man but glided it straight on to Haddin's right leg, before the ball bobbed up and into the wicketkeeper's midriff, where he clung on with his gloves. It ended a 121-run partnership between Dilshan and Mathews, a fifth-wicket record for Sri Lanka against Australia, beating a 19-year-old record set by Arjuna Ranatunga and Hashan Tillakaratne.
Dilshan had looked far more comfortable down at No.5 than he had while opening in the first two Tests. He went for his shots early and was still keen to use the pace of the second new ball, his driving an especially strong feature of his game, and he brought up his half-century from his 70th delivery, with a punch through point for four off the offspin of Lyon.
He arrived at the crease after Australia picked up the key wickets of Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene before lunch, although both men looked in fine touch for the first hour of the day. Just after Jayawardene brought up his half-century with an upper-cut for four off Shane Watson, he perished for 51 when he drove at Watson and edged behind when the ball move just a fraction away from him.
It was a wicket against the run of play, Australia having had few encouraging moments in the 101-run partnership. The news was even better for the visitors when Siddle struck in the first over with the new ball, when he found some extra bounce and nipped the ball just far enough off the seam away from the left-hander Sangakkara to entice an edge.
The reward for Siddle was well earned. In difficult conditions, he bustled in over after over, and like Copeland kept the runs tight. Mitchell Johnson was much less impressive, finding no swing, no uncomfortable bounce, and thus posing no threat to the batsmen.
Still, the Australians did enough to give themselves the hope of a draw, if their batsmen are up to the task. Sri Lanka can tell themselves have laid the groundwork; now they must go hard with bat and ball on the fourth day to give themselves the best possible chance of victory. Their series depends on it.