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Mahela, Hashan fightback
Sri Lanka’s new captain Hashan Tillekeratne (seen acknowledging the crowd after his half-century) struck an unbeaten 71 to help his team recover from a stuttering start. (AFP)

Colombo: Mahela Jayawardene roared back to form after a nightmarish World Cup to steer Sri Lanka towards safety in the first Test versus New Zealand Sunday.

The stylish right-hander, who scored a mere 20 runs in 10 matches at cricket’s showpiece last month, hit an unbeaten 58 as the hosts replied strongly to New Zealand’s 515 for seven declared.

Sri Lanka survived an uncertain period soon after lunch to close the third day’s play at 267 for four in their first innings, still 248 runs behind with six wickets in hand.

New captain Hashan Tillekeratne was batting on 71 in an unbroken fifth-wicket stand of 133 with Jayawardene after New Zealand had grabbed two crucial wickets in the post-lunch session.

Kumar Sangakkara and Sanath Jayasuriya, who put on 103 for the third wicket before lunch, were separated in the space of 20 runs soon after resumption. Lanka slipped from their lunch score of 114 for two to 134 for four, but defiant batting from Jayawardene and Tillekeratne ensured against a middle-order collapse. The pair saw off the second new ball, claimed under darkening skies, before rain halted play 11.5 overs early.

A watchful Jayawardene has so far hit eight boundaries against his captain’s 13.

“We always knew it was a matter of time before Mahela would be back among the runs,” said Tillekeratne. “Had he not been there at the other end, it could have spelt trouble for us. I am happy that I have got runs too, but we still have a lot of work ahead in this match.”

The New Zealand attack, comprising just one bowler in Daniel Vettori with over 50 Test wickets, was hampered by both the stifling humidity and the even-paced wicket.

Sri Lanka remained scoreless for 13 minutes after lunch when Jayasuriya was unfortunate to be bowled by Shane Bond, the ball bouncing slowly off his pads to dislodge the bails. Jayasuriya, who gave up the captaincy before the series to concentrate on his batting, struck eight fours in his 50.

The aggressive Sangakkara paid with his wicket in trying to hit off-spinner Paul Wiseman out of the attack. Having lofted two straight boundaries in three balls, Sangakkara miscued a similar shot later in the over and was well caught by Jacob Oram running back from cover. Sangakkara, shorn of the responsibility of keeping wickets, made an attractive 67 containing 14 boundaries.

Earlier, Sri Lanka lost nightwatchman Chaminda Vaas after adding just seven runs to their overnight score of four for one when Bond forced an edge to skipper Stephen Fleming at first slip.

Fleming, who hit a career-best unbeaten 274 Saturday, should have taken his second catch soon after when Sangakkara edged Oram, but the Black Caps captain floored the low chance.

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