KANDY: What a score to sleep on. Shaun Marsh is lodged on 87 - the most notorious number in cricket - after bad light stalled his drive for an historic Test century on debut against Sri Lanka last night.
Marsh's father, Geoff, the maker of 2854 hard-earned runs during his 50-Test career, was watching from the grandstand at Pallekele Stadium as the 28-year-old edged nearer towards three figures on day two of the second Test. However, with only 13 runs left to compile, umpires Tony Hill and Richard Kettleborough checked their light meters then ushered players off the ground at 3.34pm local time.
Marsh and Michael Hussey, unbeaten on 76 and with a century in mind himself, had put Australia thoroughly in charge by then, with an unbroken stand of 148 runs leading the tourists to 3-264, a lead of 90.
''Mahela [Jayawardene] did just give him a little wink as he was walking off and just sort of said, 'Geez, you wouldn't want to be 87 not out overnight,''' Hussey said. ''But it's not going to bother him, I don't think. I said, 'I'd much prefer to be on 87 than on seven.' He'll be a bit nervous overnight but hopefully he can start well again in the morning.''
Hussey was also batting alongside Marsh when he made his debut for Western Australia a decade ago, and then when he notched his maiden first-class ton, against NSW in 2003.
''I remember that vividly because Steve Waugh was at cover and Mark Waugh was bowling,'' Hussey said. ''Shaun got into the 90s, and Steve was just starting to get into his head a bit saying, 'Don't get nervous now, Shaun, you've played so well. Don't throw away a hundred now.' And he hit the next two balls for six to bring up his hundred, so he wasn't too nervous in the 90s that time.''
A noted blazer in limited-overs international cricket, questions remained about Marsh's compatibility with the longer form of the game even upon his selection here, as a direct replacement for the absent Ricky Ponting. They have been answered fairly emphatically with a performance of patience and power that set Australia back on course for an imposing first-innings score.
Marsh will attempt today to become the 19th Australian to reach a hundred on debut, and the first since Marcus North - another West Australian left-hander - made 117 against South Africa in 2009. Other Australians to achieve the feat are his captain, Michael Clarke, Greg Chappell, Mark Waugh and Greg Blewett.
Marsh, batting at No.3, arrived in the middle with Australia's command on the match just beginning to ease slightly as a result of the early departures of Shane Watson and Phillip Hughes, both for 36, and Clarke for 13.
From 3-116, he and Hussey diligently restored Australia's fortunes and passed Sri Lanka's meagre total of 174 by early afternoon. Sri Lanka, by contrast, had lost the plot, bizarrely giving Kumar Sangakkara - who has only one first-class wicket behind him - the second new ball before tea.
Marsh settled quickly, and only briefly lashed out in reaching a first Test half-century in 117 minutes and 133 balls. He brought up the 50 with two characteristic whacks to the long-off boundary that had rookie leg-spinner Seekkuge Prasanna scratching his head and Marsh snr on his feet in pride. The shoulders continued to loosen as he worked his way closer to three figures, and his acceleration was reflected in his tally of 11 boundaries by the time dark clouds intervened.
The seasoned Hussey, man of the match in the first Test win in Galle last week, was the ideal companion for Marsh but said the debutant had, in fact, had a calming effect on him.
''I had a bit of a period there where I was struggling for concentration, and Shaun was really keeping me going,'' he said.