After a superlative bowling performance had restricted Sri Lanka to 221 in their second innings, the Indian batsmen limped their way to 55 for one at close on the third day of the second cricket Test here today chasing a victory target of 264.
Muthiah Muralitharan troubled the Indians with both the bat and the ball and but for his pyrotechnics the visitors would have been in a lot better position.
The wily off-spinner, coming at number nine when Sri Lanka were reeling at 140 for seven, blasted five fours and three sixes for a career-best 67, off just 65 balls, that was mainly responsible for setting a healthy target for the Indians. Muralitharan remained the thorn in India's flesh for more than an hour as he added 64 runs for the last wicket with Ruchira Perera who contributed just six.
Muralitharan then got the vital wicket of Shiv Sunder Das, bowled off a straight delivery while playing for the spin, as India desperately tried to hold on to their wickets towards the end of the day. Rahul Dravid (11) and Sadagopan Ramesh (15) survived through the rest of the day but not without some anxious moments.
India still need 209 runs with nine wickets and two full days of play left in this wide open Test.
Earlier, Venkatesh Prasad and Zaheer Khan bowled their hearts out sharing nine of the ten wickets between them to swing the game back in India's favour. They very nearly bowled out the hosts within 180 before running into Muralitharan.
It was probably the best day for India in this series and everything seemed to be going their way. Till Muralitharan got into their way, that is.
The Indians bowled with a rare aggression and maintained a very tight line and length. Zaheer and Prasad were very accurate and their relentless attack on and just outside the off-stump paid them rich dividends.
The efforts started bearing fruit right from the first over of the day when Zaheer had Kumar Sangakkara caught by wicketkeeper Sameer Dighe off the third ball without any addition to overnight total of 52 for one.
That was only the beginning of the things to come as the Indians grew in confidence with every wicket and tightened the pressure. With these two bowlers going strong, Harbhajan Singh was not pressed into action in the first two sessions and captain Saurav Ganguly and Harvinder Singh bowled short stints only to give Prasad and Zaheer some rest.
The Sri Lankan batsmen were never allowed to settle down and almost all of them were kept on tenterhooks throughout their innings. Marvan Atapattu and first innings centurion Mahela Jayawardene did occupy the crease for some time but found the going extremely tough. They picked only the loose deliveries, that weren't too many, to score and didn't go for anything flashy.
Prasad, who had been slightly wayward in the first innings and in the first Test, was rewarded for his good line and length today when he got the vital wicket of Atapattu for 45. He induced an outside edge off Atapattu's bat which was caught brilliantly by Dighe, diving full length to his right to pick up the ball inches from the ground.
While debutant umpire Tyronne Vijayawardene went across to consult senior colleague Steve Bucknor, Atapattu (45), in a rare sporting gesture and walked back to the pavilion acknowledging that the catch was fair.
With two of their most consistent batsmen out, Zaheer, who was rested after bowling five overs, was pressed back into service immediately to put further pressure on the Sri Lankans. The left-hander did not let his captain down and struck twice in his next four overs to have the home team struggling at 116 for five.
Jayawardene, who had survived a couple of close calls earlier including a simple run-out chance, was surprised by a faster delivery from Zaheer and he went for the shot a bit too late. The resulting edge was gleefully accepted by Hemang Badani in the second slip. Jayawardene made 25 with the fourth wicket falling at 108.
Russel Arnold, who got out cheaply in the first innings, was the next man out, trapped leg before wicket by a swinging delivery from Zaheer.
Zaheer, who got his best Test figures today, missed out on his first five-wicket haul as Prasad took over from there and virtually wiped out the remaining Sri Lankan batting line-up.
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