Shaun Marsh hit an unbeaten half-century to keep Australia afloat after Sri Lanka struck vital blows on the opening day of the third and final cricket Test on Friday.
Left-handed Marsh was batting on a gutsy 68 as the tourists, leading 1-0 in the series, recovered from a disastrous start to move to 154-4 by tea at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo.
Marsh, who made 141 on debut in the drawn second Test, hit six boundaries as he put on 79 for the third wicket with Ricky Ponting (48) and 34 for the unbroken fifth with Mike Hussey (18 not out).
Sri Lankan captain Tillakaratne Dilshan’s decision to send Australia in to bat on a moisture-laden wicket paid off as the tourists slumped to 22-2 in the ninth over.
Debutant seamer Shaminda Eranga grabbed a wicket with his first delivery in Test cricket — just as Australian spinner Nathan Lyon had done in the opening Test of the series — and returned with 2-41 at the break.
Eranga, 25, one of the three changes in the Sri Lankan side, struck as soon as he replaced Chanaka Welegedara for the eighth over.
Shane Watson, who made eight, chased a ball outside the off-stump and drove straight into the safe hands of Dilshan at point.
Watson’s unexpected dismissal came after his opening partner, Phil Hughes, had fallen for a second-ball duck, bowled by Suranga Lakmal.
Ponting, returning to the side after missing the Pallekele game due to the birth of his second child, survived two confident appeals for catches behind the stump before he had reached double figures.
Television replays confirmed there were no edges off the bat and Ponting grew in confidence to take successive boundaries off Welegedara through the cover region.
Ponting and Marsh took the score to 63-2 by lunch and then opened out after resumption with the former skipper playing shots on both sides of the wicket.
Ponting fell against the run of play when he attempted to drive a wide ball from Lakmal and only managed to edge an easy catch to wicket-keeper Prasanna Jayawardene.
The 36-year-old, the third highest run-getter in Test cricket behind the Indian duo of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, has now gone 22 innings without a Test century.
Ponting’s last three-figure knock was the 209 against Pakistan at Hobart in January last year.
Michael Clarke, Ponting’s successor as captain, also continued his poor run when he was caught behind off Eranga after making six.
Clarke has not hit a Test century since his 168 against New Zealand in Wellington in March last year.
Australia made two changes from the side that played the last game, dropping injured fast bowler Ryan Harris and middle-order batsman Usman Khawaja to play Ponting and seamer Peter Siddle.
Sri Lanka, looking for a series-levelling win in Kumar Sangakkara’s 100th Test appearance, axed senior batsman Thilan Samaraweera, off-spinner Suraj Randiv and leg-spinner Seekkuge Prasanna.
They were replaced by batsman Lahiru Thirumanne, Eranga and left-arm spinner Herath.
Australia won the first Test in Galle by 125 runs.