Sri Lanka 346 and 170 for 3 (Mendis 69*, Mathews 17*, Cremer 2-67) need another 218 runs to beat Zimbabwe 356 and 377 (Raza 127, Waller 68, Herath 6-133, Perera 3-95)
Colombo — Graeme Cremer stuck himself into Sri Lanka’s flesh on the fourth day, first making a stubborn 48 from number nine, then claiming two wickets in the third session, as Zimbabwe dismissed three Sri Lankan batsmen in their defence of 388.
Thanks to Cremer, Zimbabwe’s dream of a historic win against Sri Lanka are alive, but even if they are chasing a target that has never successfully been pursued on the island, the hosts are not quite out of the game yet.
At the crease is a sparkling Kusal Mendis, who has hit 60 off 85 balls so far, and has refused to let the spinners settle to him, on what has now become a slightly treacherous pitch.
Alongside him stands Angelo Mathews, one of Sri Lanka’s best-ever fourth-innings batsmen. With an inexperienced Niroshan Dickwella, and an injured Asela Gunaratne to come, this, you suspect, is the partnership that will have to bloom if Sri Lanka are to score the further 218 required for victory. They have so far managed 170 for 3. The game stands tantalisingly poised.
Worryingly for the hosts, all three of their dismissals so far were brought about by significant turn.
Cremer broke the opening stand that had yielded 58, tossing one up outside Upul Tharanga’s off stump, and spinning it in more sharply than Tharanga expected.
The ball would take the inside edge, and pop up for a simple bat-pad catch.
Later, Cremer also had Dinesh Chandimal caught at slip, luring the batsman into a forward prod, and having it take the outside edge.
The most extraordinary dismissal of the day, however, belonged to Sean Williams, who turned the ball as far anyone has managed in the game.
Pitching it well wide of Dimuth Karunaratne, Williams had the ball surge back off the rough.
So wide had it pitched, that Karunaratne — who had batted fluently until then — did not even bother offering a shot, and could only watch as the ball hit his off stump.
Karunaratne had set the early tone for the innings, searching intently for scoring options, which he found most easily on the legside.
His 49 off 84 balls had only one boundary — a pulled four off Sikandar Raza in the fifth over.
Tharanga, who had been so quick to set off in the first innings, began watchfully here, making only one run from his first 15 balls.
Eventually, he began to find the boundary, and steered Sri Lanka to 56 for no loss in the company of Karunaratne, before losing his wicket in the second over after the break.
Mendis came to the crease, picked up two singles, then made his first statement of the innings, sweeping his ninth ball — from Cremer — flat and hard to the square leg boundary.
It is a stroke Mendis plays exceedingly well, and one that has defined this tour.
Perhaps the shot of the day was another Mendis sweep, off Cremer again, in the 33rd over, when the legside sweeper had fewer than 10 metres to run in order to cut the shot off, but was beaten by the power behind the stroke.
In between six legside boundaries, Mendis found singles and twos square of the wicket, and sent his innings skimming along at such a lively pace, it was easy, at times, to forget the match situation.
Mathews, often a slow starter, perhaps took Mendis’ lead and sought out the run-scoring opportunities. His 17 not out off 33 balls featured a straight six off Cremer.
Sri Lanka had been set as many as 388 — which, if pursued, would be the fifth-highest successful chase in Test cricket — partly because of their bowlers’ continuing lack of menace on the fourth day, though perhaps an unhelpful surface can take some of the blame.
Through large parts of yesterday, Rangana Herath again appeared to be the sole Sri Lankan threat, picking up two further wickets to take his tally to 11 for the Test.
Dilruwan Perera provided better support for Herath yesterday, but only occasionally bowled a threatening ball. Suranga Lakmal finished wicketless after 28 overs in this match.
Lahiru Kumara was a little better, gleaning some reverse swing with the old ball, but still did not create more than one chance on the day — an edge off Cremer’s bat that flew through vacant third slip.
Though there will be a little trepidation about what the final day holds, the fourth had begun joyfully for Zimbabwe, as Raza required only two deliveries to move to a maiden Test ton.
He then immediately set about building on Zimbabwe’s lead as if what was probably the personal milestone of his career was merely a distraction from the real job at hand.
The sweep and reverse sweep were popular against the spinners again, but Raza’s most eye-catching boundary of the morning was an assertive straight punch, off Lakmal, in the 76th over.
His overnight partner, Waller, meanwhile, had a quiet morning, and holed out attempting his first boundary of the day, closing out the seventh wicket stand at 144 runs.
Raza was visibly livid with his teammate for hitting a long hop straight to deep midwicket, but was out himself, 17 runs later, attempting a reverse sweep against Herath only to miss the delivery and have it clatter his stumps.
Cremer and number 10 Donald Tiripano continued Zimbabwe’s onward march, however, taking risk-free runs and hitting out only at the truly poor deliveries, just as the batsmen had done.
Sri Lanka, who had held their catches until the third day, contributed to their own frustration yesterday by grassing two.
Just before lunch, Karunaratne failed to hold a tough chance low to his right at slip, reprieving Cremer on 32.
Perera, the bowler on that occasion, would see another chance go down off his bowling after lunch, when Lahiru Kumara fumbled a straightforward catch off Tiripano at mid-off.
The Cremer-Tiripano ninth-wicket stand was Zimbabwe’s best of the day, yielding 55 runs.
Perera would eventually get Tiripano lbw for 19, before Herath drew a top-edge from a sweeping Cremer to end the innings. But that was not before Chris Mpofu had biffed a six, and the last-wicket pair had added another 16 together.