Eleven days shy of the one-year anniversary of his epic match-saving, series-defining 176 against Australia, Kusal Mendis was forced to keep yet another hungry opposition at bay.
Mendis, who helped Sri Lanka sweep Australia 3-0 at home with that classic knock in the opening Test back then, has gained a reputation for providing a solid hand at a brisk rate, and on Monday, Sri Lanka needed him to perform that role against Zimbabwe at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo.
He came through as he compiled a fine unbeaten 60 from 85 balls to guide Sri Lanka to 170 for 3 at stumps on the fourth day of the one-off Test, but the job is far from done.
Sri Lanka was set a stiff target of 388 runs after Zimbabwe rode on Sikandar Raza’s maiden Test century – 127 in 205 balls with nine fours and a six – and fine knocks from Malcolm Waller (68) and Graeme Cremer (48) to be bowled out for 377.
In pursuit of what will be its highest successful run chase (the previous highest was the 352 it achieved against South Africa in 2006), Sri Lanka got off to a shaky start but Mendis and Angelo Mathews (17 not out) teamed up and brought Sri Lanka within 218 runs of a victory that will make everyone at home very happy after the One-Day International series reversal against the same opposition.
Mendis and Mathews saw off Zimbabwe’s all-spin ploy, but Upul Tharanga (27), Dimuth Karunaratne (49) and Dinesh Chandimal (15), the new skipper, found them too hot to handle.
On a pitch that offered decent turn and awkward bounce, Cremer did the talking with his leg-breaks as he got rid of Tharanga up front. Sean Williams bagged the prized scalp of Karunaratne, and Cremer did more damage to Sri Lanka’s chase, accounting for Chandimal.
That left Sri Lanka reeling at 133 for 3 from 37.1 overs. The success of the spinners saw them bowl out the rest of the day, but they weren’t lucky enough to find another breakthrough.
“We have got to watch out for Cremer. He is creating the most trouble. There is lot of assistance for the wrist spinner,” said Karunaratne after the day’s play. “We have already got 170 runs on the board ... once the ball gets softer, it gets easier. If these two guys are able to hang in there for one and a half hours we will get into an interesting position.”
Earlier, with Zimbabwe starting the day on 252 for 6 in its second innings, Sri Lanka would have hoped for a swift end, but Raza, Waller and Cremer had other plans. While Raza went about adding runs at a decent clip, Waller chipped in with a few runs to his overnight tally of 57 before falling to Kusal Perera (3 for 95). Rangana Herath eventually brought Raza’s innings to a close with a brute of a delivery, which also signalled his 30th five-for in 80 Tests and match figures of 11 for 249.
“Feels great to get my maiden Test hundred,” said Raza. “All the batters put up a tremendous show. Brilliant effort by all the guys to get us into this position. The result of this game now can go our way.”
Cremer and Donald Tiripano kept Sri Lanka on the field for a bit longer and that added to the frustration of the home side, but Herath picked up his sixth and led Sri Lanka off the field with the hope of a decent batting performance to save the blushes.