There needed to be no reminder of the bigger, and far more important, picture playing out in Sri Lanka but on a day of extraordinary scenes around the country the cricketers managed to focus on their task at hand and put together a tremendous fightback against Australia.
It started by removing Australia’s last five wickets for 35 runs, left-arm spinner Prabath Jayasuriya finishing with the second-best figures by a Sri Lankan on Test debut. Then captain Dimuth Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis built a stand of 152 in 46 overs, Sri Lanka’s highest second-wicket partnership against Australia, before Karunaratne fell 14 runs short of a century to Mitchell Swepson. At the close, Kusal was within 16 of his second Test hundred against Australia.
It all unfolded against the backdrop of major anti-government protests at the ongoing economic crisis in the country. Protesters in Galle were prevented from travelling to Colombo for the main rally as the government blocked public transport and fuel sales.
Crowds quickly swelled and marched around the stadium before making their way to the iconic Galle Fort which had been closed to everyone following the forced removal of protesters during the opening Test. By the lunch interval, the protest had relocated outside the gates of the ground and during the afternoon session grew in size and noise.
Australia have been very aware of the bigger picture throughout this tour and before play Pat Cummins posted a video on social media in association with UNICEF where he spoke to two young female cricketers about the impact of the crisis.
On the field as the game continued, Sri Lanka turned the tables on Australia in a manner that had appeared unlikely. Taking the lottery out of the contest by producing a more even surface has, so far, worked although they will not want to concede a first-innings lead as batting last is still unlikely to be a comfortable task.
Australia’s early breakthrough came courtesy of a brilliant catch in the gully by Cameron Green who leapt full-stretch to his left to grab Pathum Nissanka’s outside edge off Mitchell Starc. Karunaratne would have been run out on 18 if Starc’s throw from mid-on had hit and, in the final over before tea, was given a life when he toe-ended a full toss back towards Swepson who couldn’t get into position in his follow through.
Barring those moments, though, the stand was largely untroubled with Kusal especially serene. The first boundary of the innings had not come until the 15th over amid early pressure from Australia’s bowlers, but the pair were then quick to latch onto anything loose, of which there were a number of offerings from Swepson’s first spell and a slightly off-colour Nathan Lyon who struggled to consistently find the right length.
There was much more work for the quicks (Green bowled for the first time in series) with Australia searching for the reverse swing which had been such a weapon in Pakistan but there wasn’t much on offer amid two ball changes. Cummins also went for a spell of short-pitched bowling, which would probably not have been Plan A or B for the captain after how the first Test played out.
The half-centuries came at a comparable rate – Karunaratne 109 balls and Kusal 118 – and overall Sri Lanka scored at 3.61 during the final session as Australia struggled to replicate their early hold on the run rate. It was a return to Swepson that made the difference when, in his first over back, he skidded one into the pads of Karunaratne who knew he was gone but appeared to be talked into a wasted review. Karunaratne’s 86 was his best score against Australia, the country he has struggled most against, and just his third half-century in 19 innings.
It was a much-changed scenario from the start of play. Australia had resumed on 298 for 5 and it appeared they were tracking well towards 400 as Steven Smith and Alex Carey extended their partnership to 77. However, after Carey top-edged a reverse sweep to be taken deep on the off side none of the lower order could stay with Smith for a substantial amount of time.
That was soon followed by a superb catch at slip by Kusal to remove Starc, after an outside edge flew very quickly, which gave Jayasuriya his fifth wicket. In the end, Jayasuriya’s debut figures sat behind only fellow left-arm spinner Praveen Jayawickrama’s 6 for 92 against Bangladesh last year.
Smith largely tried to farm the strike with No. 11 Swepson for company but Sri Lanka were able to end things before it became too frustrating. The final wicket went to another debutant, Maheesh Theekshana, who opened his account by removing Swepson lbw when there was one ball of the over to survive, leaving Smith unbeaten on 145.