The first Western sailors to find Sri Lanka called it the Isle of Serendipity. Serendipity is the faculty for making happy discoveries by accident. Australia's encounter with Sri Lanka here has been marked by accident and incident, and still they have in their grasp victory that would be more blissful than most, and might even cause Hobart to arch an eyebrow.
But a grinding and enervating day lies ahead, and beyond that, many more for selectors and medics as they try to patch together a team for the next two Tests, and the myriad tests to follow. The bowling merry-go-ground has become like arthritis, a pain to live with, but Monday's preview of an unsettled batting order without Michael Clarke as its bedrock was chilling.
Each Test match is played in a range of tempers and temperatures. On Monday, some sort of fever, cricket's equivalent of a 24-hour flu, passed over this one. Well after noon, Australia were in a classic position of comfortable control. As openers, David Warner and Ed Cowan are complementary. This day, they drew on each other, Warner on Cowan's patience, Cowan on Warner's boldness, and without alarm raised 132. Australia's lead was 246.
Seemingly, the innings would be Clarke's to declare, weighing variables of time, weather and bowling stocks. The pitch was placid, and meditative serenity reigned.
Then the morning's rolling wore off the pitch, and the rocking kicked in. Australia sought to up the tempo. Warner played a remarkable backhand swat at spinner Rangana Herath and gained four, notionally through point, in that instant square leg. Warner might change the game; at very least, he is reorienting it. His downfall was to cut conventionally at a Herath slider. A little more than 30 overs later, Australia were all out bar the stranded Mike Hussey and the hamstrung Clarke. By then, Australia were in such chaos that Hussey waited, not knowing if Clarke would rejoin him.
Mishap, misjudgment and malfeasance abounded. Cowan, when bowled, looked at the pitch as he would a rearing snake. Watson was stumped without leaving his crease, or so he thought. Matt Wade, mysteriously promoted to No.5, was caught at the longest of ons, but such a pox was upon the day that ABC veteran Jim Maxwell, in a Norman May moment, announced him as bowled. Fortunately, he has robust sense of humour.
There were other manifestations of madness. Sri Lanka burned referrals the way the Inquisition did books, having baulked at one that would have gained them a wicket the previous day. Herath, introduced peculiarly late, then bowling unchanged, suddenly took five wickets. He is, as a finger spinner must be, a clever bowler with a simple theme but many subtle variations on it and mastery of them all. He is again the leading wicket-taker in the world this year.
But the true man of accidents was Clarke. He is in such rare form that even when stabbing down on yorkers, he times the ball as others do only in their dreams.
Once he mis-hit to the boundary, and another time almost as far, from what can only be called an educated toe. Elsewhere, the ball sped from his bat as if from a slingshot. Where others poked at Herath from the crease suspiciously, Clarke waltzed to the pitch and took away to leg repeatedly. In less than an hour, he had another 50.
Then misfortune struck in the form of a pinch in his hamstring, and he retired hurt. At the MCG, this would have prompted a hush. Here, it prompted continuation of a hush. Clarke's form is once-in-a-lifetime vintage; it would be a shame for him and Australia if it were to be clamped off now.
As Australia redeployed, Ben Hilfenhaus batted but did not appear on the field, and Clarke stopped batting but did field. Still, the eccentricity was not done. Shane Watson, with a leg-cutter, got Tillakaratne Dilshan first ball; that is always an accident. Mitchell Starc forgot his manners when pinging a throw at Dimuth Karunaratne, then remembered his method to york him. Starc is Mitchell Johnson without the agonies. Clarke, fielding slip to Nathan Lyon, dropped Kumar Sangakkara, betraying consciousness of his soreness.
Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, put it at the nearest shelter until stumps. But the pitch is dying so quickly some rigor mortis is already evident. This is how it should be; pitches, unlike Christmas puppies, are not forever. Weather permitting, and in the absence of Faf du Plessis, Australia should have their first win of the summer.