Colombo: Australia’s morning of joy became an afternoon of frustrating grind and missed opportunities as Sri Lanka took charge of the third Test to finish 5-214 at stumps on the first day.
Having reconfigured their batting line-up in a series gone wrong, it was Australia’s bowlers who provided optimism with a robust effort early on day one at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground.
Skipper Steve Smith lost the toss for the third time in the series but it did not matter initially as Sri Lanka slumped to 5-26 when star strokemaker Kusal Mendis fell for one, thanks to some aggressive bowling by spearhead Mitchell Starc and the variety of deliveries offered by off-spinner Nathan Lyon. Only once before in their Test history had Sri Lanka lost as many wickets for fewer runs, that being 5-18 against New Zealand in Kandy in 1984.
But the hosts then found their groove, as the wristy Dhananjaya de Silva (116 not out) posted his maiden century, in his third Test, and shared in a record – and unbeaten – Sri Lankan sixth-wicket stand against Australia of 181 in more than 4.30 hours with Dinesh Chandimal (64 not out). The latter had survived a scorching dropped chance into the left hand of a diving Mitch Marsh at gully off Starc when on 11.
De Silva, who survived two reviews by Smith and grassed opportunities either side of his century, was the more aggressive of the pair, driving and flicking with aplomb in notching 16 boundaries. Having contributed some handy knocks through the series, this time he was able to celebrate not only his maiden half-century but reaching three figures en route to carrying his side to a slow-burn 5-214 off 90 overs.
This was an innings full of resolve and one which has set the locals on the path to completing a series whitewash. How the Australians respond will provide an intriguing insight into their self-belief on what has already been a rugged tour.
Starc and Lyon toiled diligently but their fellow bowlers largely lacked impact. Smith shuffled his fielding and turned to Josh Hazlewood to help deliver a breakthrough on a dry, uneven deck but the frontline quick finished wicketless and appeared down in pace.
Left-arm spinner Jon Holland maintained a tight line and almost had de Silva on the cusp of tea with a slow, looping delivery but the tough chance deflected off the webbing of the right glove of wicketkeeper Peter Nevill. De Silva and Chandimal forged ahead in what has been the largest partnership of the series, and each was rewarded with a milestone after the break.
De Silva’s, naturally, was given a standing ovation, amid the beating of drums and music at the home of Sri Lankan cricket.
The tourists had hoped the second new ball would help deliver an incision, and Starc – ever threatening – provided that opportunity in his first over back when de Silva, on 104, drove straight to the recalled Shaun Marsh at short cover, only for the West Australian to botch the relatively straight-forward chance. His distraught expression was of a man who wished the turf would open and swallow him up. By day’s end, after more than two wicketless sessions, the entire Australian team was, no doubt, happy to escape the glare.
The fallout from a 2-0 scoreline was felt before play when opener Joe Burns and No.3 Usman Khawaja were axed, with reserve batsman Shaun Marsh and allrounder Moises Henriques earning a recall. Henriques had played the last of his three Tests on the disastrous Indian tour of 2013.
Burns was dumped after 34 runs at 8.5 in four innings, including a miserable return of 0 and 2 in Galle, while Khawaja had contributed 55 runs at 13.75. The left-hander had particularly struggled against off-spinner Dilruwan Perera, who had dismissed him three times, including twice in the one day in Galle, when he played back to deliveries which did not spin and was bowled.
But Burns and Khawaja are set to be firmly in the frame when Australia’s home campaign begins against South Africa in Perth in November.
Coach Darren Lehmann said changes had been required after a disappointing series to date.
“Shaun and ‘Mo’ are very good players of spin bowling. So they come into the side at the expense of Joe who’s unlucky and ‘Uz’ who’s unlucky,” he said.
“It’s a tough call on those two younger guys but it’s only for this Test match. We’ll have a look going forward at home. It’s different conditions.”
Starc and Lyon, the latter brought on in the sixth over, were superb before lunch. Starc continued the misery for the Sri Lankan openers when he had Kaushal Silva drive a fullish delivery which was snapped up by Smith at second slip.
Kusal Perera flashed three boundaries in his stay of just under 30 minutes but his dismissal would prompt a stunning 4-5 collapse. After Lyon had the left-handed Perera caught at slip off a full, quickish delivery angled in at off-stump, Starc dismissed Dimuth Karunaratne for the fifth time in as many innings, this time after an inside edge crashed into the left-hander’s stumps.
Karunaratne won’t be remembered in the mould of a Daryll Cullinan, the South African who famously was one of Shane Warne’s “bunnies”, but, for Starc, his scalp was just as precious. His cheeky send-off of Karunaratne – raising the five fingers on one hand – reinforced his joy.