Australia have been here before. One day to play, one bowler short, and an opposition whose top order has already been rattled. But Sri Lanka will need even greater powers of concentration to match the remarkable feats of Faf du Plessis and his South African colleagues, who secured a draw in Adelaide last month by batting out the final day. As stumps approached on the fourth evening in Hobart, the pitch was providing such variable bounce that even two of the world’s finest batsmen, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, could do little but chuckle with resignation.
They will begin the final morning with Sri Lanka’s total on 2 for 65 in a chase of 393, with Sangakkara on 18 and Jayawardene on 5. The target appeared extremely challenging when Sri Lanka began their innings – their best chase to win a Test was 352 for 9 against South Africa in Colombo in 2006 – and by stumps it looked nigh on impossible. But with two such talented batsmen at the crease, the Sri Lankans will also know that anything can happen, and Australia will need to find the remaining eight wickets without the injured Ben Hilfenhaus in their attack.
The captain Michael Clarke also battled injury on the fourth day, retiring hurt with a hamstring problem after scoring a brisk half-century. He took his place in the field during Sri Lanka’s chase and directed proceedings from the slips cordon, but did wince on a couple of occasions when forced to stretch his sore right hamstring. The injury might place him in doubt for the Boxing Day Test, but Australia will be more comfortable with that scenario if he delivers them a 1-0 lead on the final day in Hobart.
Things had started reasonably well as Shane Watson struck with his first delivery, nipping the ball away from Tillakaratne Dilshan and finding the outside edge through to Matthew Wade. Dilshan’s opening partner Dimuth Karunaratne looked reasonably solid until he was bowled for 30, the victim of a Mitchell Starc yorker that sneaked under the bat. Runs came slowly for Sangakkara and Jayawardene, whose primary goal was survival, and when one ball from Watson skidded almost along the ground to Sangakkara, the enormity of that task was apparent. The Australians could have had Sangakkara on 3 when his thick edge off Nathan Lyon was dropped by Clarke at slip, and they knew he was their primary obstacle, the same man who scored 192 against them on the same ground five years ago, also in the fourth innings of a Test.
On that occasion, Sri Lanka were chasing 507; this time the target was sub-400, confirmed when Hilfenhaus was the last man out in Australia’s innings shortly before tea, handing Rangana Herath his fifth wicket for the innings. Michael Hussey remained not out on 31 when Australia were dismissed for 278, with Clarke not emerging from the dressing rooms to bat again having earlier retired hurt on 57.
It was to Sri Lanka’s credit that they fought back with the ball after David Warner and Ed Cowan gave Australia a strong start with a 132-run opening stand. Both men fell shortly before lunch and the Sri Lankans were able to claim the rest of the wickets before tea. Watson (5) was the victim of a sharp stumping by Prasanna Jayawardene off the bowling of Herath, before Phillip Hughes was bowled by Shaminda Eranga for 16.
Matthew Wade, promoted to No.5 in an attempt to provide the Australians with quick runs, was on 11 when he holed out to long-on from the bowling of Herath and that brought together Clarke and Hussey, who so often this summer have rescued the Australians. Again they proved a strong combination and Clarke was in typically fine touch, moving the score along at a rapid rate with boundaries all around the wicket.
AUSTRALIA 1st innings 450
SRI LANKA 1st innings 336
AUSTRALIA 2nd innings 278
SRI LANKA 2nd innings
FDM Karunaratne b Starc 30
TM Dilshan c †Wade b Watson 11
KC Sangakkara not out 18
DPMD Jayawardene* not out 5
TO BAT TT Samaraweera, AD Mathews, HAPW Jayawardene†, KMDN Kulasekara, HMRKB Herath, RMS Eranga, UWMBCA Welegedara
FALL OF WICKETS 1-26 (Dilshan, 9.1 ov), 2-47 (Karunaratne, 23.1 ov)
MA Starc 10-4-21-1, PM Siddle 7-3-12-0, SR Watson 9-4-10-1, NM Lyon 10-3-16-0
MEK Hussey 1-0-5-0
Toss Australia, who chose to bat
Umpires AL Hill (New Zealand) and NJ Llong (England)
TV umpire Aleem Dar (Pakistan)
Match referee BC Broad (England)
Reserve umpire SD Fry