The soft ball turned less sharply off the pitch, and the Khettarama surface itself has become easier to bat on. So said Sri Lanka’s interim head coach Nic Pothas, after Zimbabwe turned a scoreline of 59 for 5 into 252 for 6 by the end of the third day. The unbeaten pair of Sikandar Raza and Malcolm Waller have been most responsible for that turnaround, their partnership currently worth 107.
“You’ve got to give credit to our players as well as the opposition,” Pothas said. “Once the hardness went out of the ball, it obviously became a bit more difficult, and it spun less than yesterday. I thought Raza played really well, as did PJ Moor and Waller.
“But our guys were phenomenal. They did their jobs. I thought the quality of the fielding was superb. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ll get up again tomorrow morning, try to get a few quick wickets, and then chase a score.”
Having conceded a first-innings lead of 10, Sri Lanka are presently looking at a fourth-innings chase north of 300, unless they can dismiss Zimbabwe quickly on the fourth morning. Only three times have teams successfully chased down targets of over 300 in Sri Lanka. One of those occasions had been against Zimbabwe, however – Sri Lanka hunting down 326 at the SSC in 1998.
Sri Lanka will hope that, as Pothas says, the Khettarama pitch is not as treacherous as Rangana Herath predicted it would be, 24 hours prior. Both Pothas and cricket manager Asanka Gurusinha have put Sri Lanka’s performances in this Test largely down to conditions.
“The pitch has changed quite a bit. Once the hardness went out of the ball today, it didn’t seem like it did as much as yesterday,” Pothas said. “Yesterday and day one the ball spun. At the end of the day we’re playing in the subcontinent and wickets spin. You just need to come up with plans to score, and how you’re going to get wickets. Today it was surprising that it didn’t do as much as expected, but we just need to find a way of getting wickets.”
With Herath having claimed nine of the 16 Zimbabwe wickets to fall so far, there has been scrutiny about the performance of the remaining bowlers, who have gone through long spells without threatening to take wickets. Pothas, however, defended Sri Lanka’s quicks in particular, again ascribing their lack of wickets to conditions.
“The amount of work those guys put in behind the scenes, and the effort they are putting in today with a soft ball, and a wicket that’s not conducive to fast bowling – I thought they did a fantastic job on it,” he said. “If we’re going to keep judging them, we need a bit of perspective. I think under the conditions they did a great job.”
Though Sri Lanka have largely fielded well in this Test – Dimuth Karunaratne taking two especially sharp catches at slip in this innings – their fielding over the past few months has come in for stern criticism, particularly after the Champions Trophy defeat to Pakistan. Pothas, however, again defended the side on that front, suggesting they had turned a corner.
“Are we judging them on one hour against Pakistan? I think we need to be careful on that, because in the first innings I thought we fielded phenomenally well. I think in general, we’ve been pretty harsh on them even when they put in good performances. I don’t think they get enough credit for it. When we played against South Africa at The Oval, I thought we fielded brilliantly. We fielded brilliantly against India. Then we had an hour of madness at the end of the Pakistan game, which was unfortunate. Since then we’ve done some pretty good stuff in the field, so I think we need to be a bit careful with always looking at the negative part of their fielding.”
Sri Lanka dropped no fewer than six catches during the ODI series against Zimbabwe, however. Half of those chances were straightforward.