Pallekele - Batting hero Kusal Mendis backed Sri Lanka's spinners to pile on the pressure against Australia after his brilliant maiden century gave the hosts an unlikely shot at victory in the first Test in Pallekele Thursday.
An unbeaten 169 from Mendis helped Sri Lanka reach 282 for six at close of play on day three of a rain-affected Test, giving them a 196-run lead in a gripping contest against the world's number one Test team.
Mendis' knock was the highest score by any Sri Lankan against Australia at home and came after no player from either side had managed to even score a half century in the first innings.
Mendis, who came to the crease in the first over of the day after the early dismissal of Dimuth Karunaratne, hardly put a foot wrong in his 243-ball innings which has so far featured 20 boundaries.
He played Australia's seamers with confidence before cutting loose against the spin bowlers with an array of boundaries.
He reached his century in spectacular fashion when he slog-swept Nathan Lyon for six and then reached his 150 by cutting the same bowler for four.
The 21-year-old, playing in his seventh Test, is closing in on the record score by a Sri Lankan against Australia and now only needs to overhaul Kumar Sangakkara's 192 at Hobart in 2007.
"It feels great," Mendis told reporters after play ended for the day.
"From the position we were in ... to get to a lead of almost 200 is great. Hopefully we can add more runs on the board and put pressure on Australia on a wicket that will assist our spinners."
The visitors' bowlers struggled in the absence of spinner Steve O'Keefe who pulled a hamstring, as first Dinesh Chandimal and then Dhananjaya de Silva gave Mendis some solid support.
Mendis and Chandimal put on 117 runs in their fifth wicket partnership.
After Chandimal was out lbw for 42 off Marsh's bowling, the debutant de Silva then scored 36 in a partnership worth 71 before becoming Lyon's 200th Test victim, caught at long-on by Usman Khawaja.
Sri Lanka only managed another eight runs before bad light and then rain brought an early end to proceedings for the third afternoon in a row but they now have an unlikely sniff of victory.
Starting the day on 6 for 1, still 80 runs behind the Australians, the hosts were soon in even deeper trouble when Karunaratne was judged lbw against Mitchell Starc without adding to the overnight score.
The hosts also lost their skipper Angelo Mathews and the opener Kaushal Silva in the morning session before Mendis launched the revival act.
Lyon said that the wicket had become slightly improved but was still full of praise for Mendis.
"It has got a bit easier to bat but you've got to give credit where credit is due. The young fella, to get 169, has batted out of his skin. He's played extremely well," said Lyon.
"It's been a tough day for our bowlers, but the good thing about Test cricket is you can bounce back tomorrow and look forward to take the new ball and hopefully take some early wickets."
Sri Lanka will pin their hopes on victory on veteran spinner Rangana Herath who took four wickets in Australia's first innings and will be expected to do the lion's share of the work when the visitors bat again.
A total of 75 overs so far have been lost due to rain and bad light but the steady succession of wickets on the first two days means that the match is still expected to yield a result.
Adam Voges top-scored in Australia's first innings total of 203 all out in reply to Sri Lanka's score of 117.
The match is the first in a three-Test series which will also see the Australians travel to Galle and then Colombo.