PALLEKELE: An unbroken stand of 59 between Steve Smith and Usman Khawaja placed Australia in firm command Tuesday of their opening Test against Sri Lanka after the hosts were bowled out for just 117.
When rain forced an early end to play on the first day in Pallekele, Australia were 66 for two, with skipper Smith (28) and his partner Khawaja (25) ramming home the advantage forged by their bowlers.
No play was possible after tea due to rain, prompting the umpires to call stumps at 4:15 pm. Play will resume on Wednesday at the earlier time of 9:45 am to make up some of the overs lost.
The downpour in Pallekele cast a further gloom over the Sri Lankan side after they recorded their lowest total at the picturesque ground, undone by a combination of Australian pace and spin.
Sri Lankan captain Angelo Mathews decided to bat first on what began as a sunny day, but Australia made early inroads as they reduced the hosts to 84 for five at lunch.
They only needed a further 6.2 overs in the second session to finish off the batting line-up, with the wickets evenly spread between their fast bowlers and spinners.
Mitchell Starc, returning after eight months of injury, drew first blood for the visitors when he trapped Dimuth Karunaratne lbw for five in the fifth over, prompting the opener to call for an unsuccessful review.
Josh Hazlewood, bowling with pace and variety, then trapped Kusal Mendis lbw for eight and had Kaushal Silva caught at first slip by Adam Voges for four.
In his second spell, he had vice-captain Dinesh Chandimal caught from behind by wicketkeeper Peter Nevill 10 minutes before lunch.
“I think it was a good toss to lose, just to see how that wicket was going to play. I thought if we bowl well, which we did, we would get a few wickets early,” Hazlewood told reporters.
Left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe claimed the prized wicket of Mathews, caught at first slip by his opposite number Smith.
Debutant Dhananjaya de Silva scored a battling 24 but only four other Sri Lankans made it into double figures.
Even though he only bowled three overs, Nathan Lyon took three Sri Lankan wickets to vindicate Smith’s decision to pick both him and O’Keefe — who picked up two scalps in only his third Test.
Both have been working with Sri Lanka’s record-breaking spinner Muttiah Muralitharan in the build-up to the series and his influence appeared to be paying early dividends.
“I think the spinners are going to come into it (the match) a lot more. They (Sri Lanka) obviously have got some quality spinners. First-innings runs are going to be very crucial for us,” Hazlewood said.
Australia were soon in trouble themselves in their first innings, losing both openers cheaply.
Vice captain David Warner went for a duck, surviving for just four deliveries before dragging Nuwan Pradeep onto the stumps after being out of action for six weeks with a broken left index finger.
Joe Burns made only three before being bowled by the veteran Rangana Herath, leaving Australia wobbling on seven for two.
But Smith and Khawaja steadily went about staging a recovery and by the close, Australia were only 51 runs adrift with eight wickets in hand.
Khawaja has so far hit four boundaries in his 54-ball knock while Smith had three fours as he faced 46 deliveries.
Australia have a poor recent away record against teams from the sub-continent but went into this series as firm favourites after clinching top spot in the Test rankings.-AFP