Kusal Mendis reigned supreme with an unbeaten 169 to power the home team to a position of strength at stumps on Day 3 of the first Test at the Pallekele International Stadium on Thursday. He was aided by Dinesh Chandimal (42) and Dhananjaya de Silva (36). Due to bad light and subsequent rain, play was called off in the final session, with the home side 196 runs in front.
Initially, the 21-year-old batsman teamed up with Chandimal to string together a stand of 117. Once Mitchell Marsh dislodged the wicket-keeper-batsman with a good length delivery that curled in late, Mendis and de Silva shared a fluent stand of 71 as the No.1 ranked Test side continued to search for answers.
Despite de Silva throwing his wicket away off Lyon in the final session, Mendis stood firm and continued to collect vital runs in the company of lower-order. It was an innings, where Mendis repelled the good deliveries and took his chances against the spin duo of Nathan Lyon and Steve O'Keefe with daring sweep shots to mastermind the turnaround.
As the sound of Mendis's willow on the leather filled the air, Smith's worried demeanour on the field suggested that the match was quickly slipping away from Australia's grasp. The shrill appeals made by the close-in fielders also gave an inkling that the tourists were getting desperate. In an attempt to stem the run-flow, Smith had two fielders positioned at short mid-wicket, but he couldn't stop Mendis from bisecting the gaps with clockwork precision.
The right-hander just seemed to be batting on a different pitch as he played across the line and even upper-cut the likes of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. He soon reached his maiden Test hundred in style, with a six off Lyon in the 43rd over. The visitors were also dealt a blow when the impressive O'Keefe sustained a hamstring injury and had to make his way back to the pavilion.
Incidentally, Mendis's century was reminiscent of Chandimal's unbeaten 169-ball 162 against India in Galle in 2015. On that occasion, the hosts were in arrears by 192 runs and his blistering century propelled Sri Lanka to a come-from-behind 63-run win. This time around, Chandimal had to play the supporting role and to his credit, he grafted his way to a well-constructed innings.
At the start of the day, Australia certainly were in the ascendancy as Starc joined forces with the metronomic Hazlewood to cause problems for the Sri Lankan batsmen in the first hour. The left-arm pacer from New South Wales made an early incision by dismissing Dimuth Karunaratne for a duck for the second time in the match in the first over of the morning. He tempted the 28-year-old batsman with a couple of deliveries that pitched and straightened a touch on the angle before bending one back into the left-hander to trap him right in front.
Karunaratne wasn't convinced about the decision and went for the review, but Hawk-Eye suggested that the ball would have clipped the leg stump. His pace colleague Hazlewood extracted nifty movement off the pitch and produced a couple of edges, but couldn't make the breakthrough.
O'Keefe, who replaced Hazlewood, then broke Kaushal Silva's (7) resolve by dismissing him leg before in the 13th over of the day. In familiar climes for spin bowling, he got one to skid off the surface and Silva's tendency to thrust his front pad led to his dismissal. Curiously, Silva, too, decided to ask for a review, but just like Karunaratne, had to walk back to the pavilion as the ball-tracker reckoned it was clipping leg stump.
It has to be noted that both Sri Lanka and Australia have been poor with their reviews in this Test.
Mendis had to encounter a few nervy moments, especially when he tried to sweep the spin duo, but his stroke-filled knock gave renewed hope for the hosts. More importantly, Mendis also regathered his thoughts quickly after reaching his fifty. The experienced Angelo Mathews (9) ran the opposition ragged by stealing singles and twos as the pair stitched a fine partnership of 40 in testing conditions before Lyon dismissed the Sri Lankan skipper just before the lunch break.
On a pitch that is offering uneven bounce and turn, Sri Lanka would fancy their chances of causing an upset. Australia, who were in the ascendancy for the first two days, would be left to ponder what went wrong on the third day.