Dammika Prasad's raw pace pulled India back after an explosive start, whereupon the spinners took charge of the game, as has been their wont over the course of the series. India's middle order failed again, as they fell from 51 for 0 in seven overs to 198 for 9, after which Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma frustrated Sri Lanka for one ball less than 20 overs - the longest partnership of the innings, and at 51 runs also the joint highest. Ishant followed up the good work with the bat to get Malinda Warnapura's wicket two overs before stumps.
Mahela Jayawardene made exceptional use of the review system, getting the wickets of Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid after challenging decisions. Gambhir had got off to his fifth start in five innings, and his third half-century in three, in characteristically aggressive fashion, but could only watch from the other end as his partners came and went, before he himself failed to convert his fifty into a big one.
Ajantha Mendis ended the frustrating last-wicket stand to finish with his second five-for, the fifth time he has taken at least four in five innings, but the real impact was caused by the debutant, Prasad.
Ever since Prasad was called up into the Sri Lanka squad after the first Test, his pace had been a talking point. And when he finally got the cap, that speed made the difference. He didn't bowl at 150kph, but he was quick enough to thwart any thoughts the batsmen might have had of dominating the bowlers. The difference he made was clear from Gambhir's contrasting approaches against Chaminda Vaas and Prasad. To Vaas he walked down the pitch, as he does in domestic cricket when facing lesser bowlers, nullifying any swing. When Vaas managed to beat him, he opened the face to run it towards third man. Vaas tried bouncing him out, but he managed to rock back and pull him for fours. But no such tactics were trotted out against Prasad, who took all three of his wickets - as opposed to buying them, which was what the Sri Lankan medium-pacers had done in the series till then.
After India chose to bat, both Gambhir and Sehwag outdid each other, hitting boundaries at will in the first half-hour. Prasad, fast and erratic to begin with, was handed a cruel baptism: Gambhir took a boundary off his first ball, Sehwag one off the first ball of his second over. After he managed to start his third over with a dot-ball, Prasad bowled a no-ball immediately after, which beat the keeper and went for four. The first ball of his fourth over was pummelled back to him and hit his left wrist viciously. After three minutes of treatment, he stunned Sehwag with one that held its line and took a faint edge through. The celebration - Prasad's eyes almost popping out of their sockets, Murali-like - spoke of how important the wicket was.
India had done enough damage by then, it seemed: they had reached 51 in 7.2 overs. In came Dravid, struggling to find form, struggling to keep the strike rotating. The scoring-rate came down, and even though Dravid looked comfortable defending, it allowed the bowlers to settle into a rhythm.
Prasad, in his second spell, came up with another special effort. He got one to swing in late, and beat Dravid's defence. Jayawardene challenged the not-out call that ensued, and replays showed that about 40% of the ball was inside the mat at the point of impact. As it would definitely have hit off and middle, and there was no inside edge, the point of impact was the only matter of contention, and the umpire was convinced enough to overturn his decision.
To make a good first session better, Prasad got Sachin Tendulkar, playing in his 150th Test, beating him with inward movement. Tendulkar, given out by Mark Benson, asked for a review, but the replay didn't show any conclusive evidence of an inside edge, which would have been the only reason to reverse the decision.
With two of the Fab Four gone, the spinners - especially Mendis - reinforced the vice grip they have had over the Indian middle order. Despite a quick start from Sourav Ganguly, who began with a boundary off Prasad and then lofted Muttiah Muralitharan over long-off, the middle order never really took charge of the game. Murali came back with a fastish offbreak that took Ganguly's edge even as he tried to hide bat behind pad.
Gambhir, meanwhile, seemed to be picking Mendis early, and looked to use his feet to him. He stepped out to hit a full toss from Mendis wide of mid-on to get to his sixth half-century. He then slowed down, which suggested he realised the need to get to at least a hundred, which he had last managed in 2004-05 against Bangladesh. But Mendis and Jayawardene teamed up again: Mendis beat Gambhir with an offbreak and Jayawardene opted for another challenge, after the proximity of the bat to the front pad and the ball had created enough doubt for the on-field umpire to rule in favour of the batsman. Replays suggested otherwise, and Sri Lanka had reduced India from 51 for 0 to 155 for 5 even before Murali and Mendis had really got going.
In the last over before tea, Mendis made sure India had squandered the advantage of winning the toss, by getting the last recognised batsman, VVS Laxman, with a legbreak. The rest, bar Zaheer and Ishant, were a mere formality. And the ease with which the last-wicket pair batted only made things look more threatening for India as they went out to field.