India galloped their way to 134 for no loss in 27 overs at lunch on Day 1 of the third and final Test against Sri Lanka at Pallekele. The opening duo of KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan didn't have to work really hard to earn their runs courtesy of some ordinary bowling by the home side. What hurt the Islanders more was that they didn't hold onto a couple of chances they had during the first session of play and also early in the post-lunch session. With an inexperienced bowling line-up and insipid surface it became all the more important for the fielders to hold on to their chances.
It seemed like a deja vu from the Galle and Colombo Tests, with India batsmen toying with hapless Sri Lankan bowlers, with easy runs on offer and chances being put down.
But the home side turned it around in the second session of play with Dimuth Karunaratne and Dinesh Chandimal pouching relatively difficult catches to dismiss the openers on either side of 200. First Rahul, who had earlier brought up his seventh consecutive half century, but missed out on his century by 15 runs, and then Dhawan, who had gone on to score his second Test hundred of the series and sixth of his career.
These two wickets put India on the back foot and before Cheteshwar Pujara could settle in, Sri Lanka's Chinaman bowler Lakshan Sandakan induced an edge and Mathews at first slip gobbled it up.
The Lankans had managed to send back three top order batsmen within a space of 38 runs, and this mini collapse by India saw the hosts come back into the game. It was a perfect time to exert more pressure on the two new men at the crease – Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane – but for some strange reason Chandimal thought otherwise. He took Malinda Pushakumara out of the attack after the spinner had bowled six overs for 19 runs accounting for both Indian openers and brought on Vishwa Fernando into the attack.
Chandimal allowed the Indian middle order pair to settle in. Even some of his fielding changes were questionable. He pushed the mid-on fielder to long-on on the third ball of the first over of the final session, sort of inviting the batsmen to collect simple singles.
Pushapakumara was brought back into the attack only after Fernando was seen clutching his hamstring, which worked out well for the home side as it took all but 10 balls in his second spell to disturb the woodwork of India's vice-captain, Rahane.
Fortunately for the Lankans, Kohli and Rahane had not hit their straps till then and added only 35 before the fourth wicket fell. Point being the Lankan skipper needs to be more aggressive on Day 2 and peg the visitors firmly back. India might be without the batting services of Ravindra Jadeja in this match but Hardik Pandya and Wriddhiman Saha both have fifties to their names in this series and are capable of scoring freely.
Chandimal must look to restrict India under 400, and for that it is necessary that he puts men around the bat while using the spinners from both ends. The aim should be to bowl out the Indian batsmen in the first session of Day 2 or else Pandya and Saha will take India's total in excess of 450 and that would leave Sri Lanka to only play catch up.
Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis who are riding on some good form from the previous Test will have to do the bulk of the scoring once the Lankans come out to bat, but it is the more experienced opener Upul Tharanga who needs to fire. He has remained quiet in this series, without any significant score to his name. His runs upfront will be vital for the likes of Chandimal and Angelo Mathews coming in later in the middle order.