Lahiru Thirimanne and Angelo Mathews added 99 runs for the third wicket. © BCCI

Lahiru Thirimanne and Angelo Mathews added 99 runs for the third wicket. © BCCI

“A Test has to be won over five days, but it can be lost in a session.” India faced the truism of this saying on a fluctuating third day’s play in the opening match against Sri Lanka, with the visiting side finishing on 165 for 4 after 45.4 overs, behind by only seven runs, when play was called off for bad light.

A fidgety Dinesh Chandimal ensured he wouldn’t be dismissed on his 28th birthday, and was batting on 13, alongside a more assured Niroshan Dickwella on 14 at what turned out to be stumps at the Eden Gardens on Saturday (November 18).

Only 32.5 overs had been bowled in the first two days, just over a session’s worth, but India had lost five wickets in that time and were always going to be on the back foot. Day 3 saw 72.2 overs being bowled and in isolation, there wasn’t as much disparity between the teams on just this day. But thanks to the good work done on the first two days, it was Sri Lanka who had firm control of the match. If the weather continues to hold good over the remaining two days, the visiting side can even dream of pulling off a first ever Test win on Indian soil.

India had been bowled out for 172 at lunch, and Sri Lanka began their reply shakily. Bhuvneshwar Kumar snared both openers – Sadeera Samarawickrama went for a sumptuous 23 that the opener might rue not turning into a bigger score – and Sri Lanka found themselves 34 for 2 in the seventh over. But the experience of Lahiru Thirimanne and Angelo Mathews served them well, with the two batsmen easing nerves and pressure with some assured shot-making.

It helped that towards the end of the session, Mohammed Shami limped off clutching his hamstring, with Virat Kohli completing his 14th over.

Neither Thirimanne nor Mathews looked in a tearing hurry, but both took advantage of the loose balls that came thanks to India’s pacers perhaps striving extra hard for wickets – as you tend to do when you have put up a very low score. Thirimanne got a reprieve on 27, when Shikhar Dhawan grassed a regulation chance at first slip off Umesh Yadav, but that apart, both men were in control.

Thanks to the pitch still having some life in it, even though batting was vastly easier on Saturday under blue skies and a shining sun than it had been when India were put in, both batsmen did face moments when they played and missed, or had the ball whistling past their outside edge. But they didn’t let it affect how they dealt with the next ball.

Umesh Yadav kept India in the game with a couple of late strikes. © BCCI

Umesh Yadav kept India in the game with a couple of late strikes. © BCCI

The closest shave Mathews had was when an edge flew straight to where third slip should have been, with Kohli at second slip and Ajinkya Rahane at gully staring at each other. While both Mathews (52) and Thirimanne (51) hit half-centuries and helped Sri Lanka tide over the danger of early wickets with a 99-run stand, they were also guilty of not carrying on to make a big score after being set. Umesh got his reward in the final session, nipping out both in successive overs, and at 138 for 4, India had a foot in the door again.

Chandimal, playing and missing far too often for comfort, and Dickwella ensured that the door didn’t burst open, taking the team through till the close. Their job will be to kick on and put Sri Lanka in an impregnable position.

That they are in a position to do so was down to how well the Sri Lankan bowlers operated. Suranga Lakmal (4 for 26) was the leader, while Lahiru Gamage got the most important scalp, castling Cheteshwar Pujara with a viciously jagging in off-cutter. Pujara, who had weathered the seaming conditions under cloudy skies on the first two days, had to leave after making 52, and with him went all of India’s hopes of breaching the 200-run mark.

But with batting getting a lot easier, the home team more than doubled their score from a dire 79 for 6. India’s best partnership, in fact, came for the seventh wicket with Ravindra Jadeja (22) joining Wriddhiman Saha (29) to put on 48 runs. Both men fell to Dilruwan Perera eventually, both via successful reviews. Jadeja was struck palpably in front while Saha was unfortunate to get the thinnest of edges while trying to sweep, and the ball then striking his arm to lob up for a catch.

There was a moment of controversy later on, when in the 53rd over with Bhuvneshwar and Shami batting, Chandimal tried to chase down a Bhuvneshwar steer off Dasun Shanaka but couldn’t get there. He put in a slide and got up and made to throw the ball, without actually having it in hand. Under the new laws that penalise ‘fake fielding’, India should have been awarded five runs, but the umpires seemed to miss the moment.

Later, with Lakmal picking up his fourth to leave India 146 for 9, Sri Lanka might have expected to bat before lunch, but Shami and Umesh gave the sparse crowd its first really entertaining phase, Shami in particular throwing his bat around with abandon. Gamage tried to bounce Shami several times, but the batsman blithely hooked, nearly always getting the top edge that went behind the wicketkeeper. The final partnership was worth 26 in just 3.1 overs, and had the advantage of putting some smiles on Indian faces.

By the end of the day though, it was Sri Lanka who had more reason to smile.