Australia are in the box seat for their first Test win of the summer, snagging vital last-session wickets in Hobart on Monday to leave Sri Lanka 2-65 at stumps, still 328 adrift of their victory target on a pitch beginning to wear noticeably.
Having set the visitors 393 to win on a Blundstone Arena deck exhibiting unnervingly low bounce, Australia had Shane Watson (1-10) and Mitchell Starc (1-21) to thank for important early inroads that gave the injury-hit Aussies every chance of winning the series opener.
At stumps, Kumar Sangakkara (18) and Mahela Jayawardene (five) were unbeaten for Sri Lanka and will need to maintain their dogged resistance long into the final day if the visitors are to somehow escape with a draw.
Michael Clarke had lit up the afternoon session with 57 at better than a run-a-ball before being forced to retire hurt with a right hamstring complaint, a hammer blow for an Australian side already reeling from the impact of a Ben Hilfenhaus side strain that has ruled the paceman out of bowling in the second innings.
Clarke's dazzling cameo helped Australia recover from a slew of wickets either side of lunch to close at 9-278 shortly before tea, combining for a 57-run stand with the ever-reliable Michael Hussey (31 not out) before the side's recent injury curse struck again.
Rangana Herath (5-54) benefited most from the home side's batting urgency, securing his 14th five-wicket haul at Test level and moving ahead of England's Graeme Swann as the ICC's leading wicket taker for 2012 with 60 scalps from nine matches in the year to date.
As had been their way in the field, Sri Lanka adopted a relatively defensive approach to the chase, particularly after Watson had first innings centurion Tillakaratne Dilshan out for 11 from the first delivery he bowled.
Second-Test opener Dimuth Karunaratne looked positive from the outset and content to occupy the crease, scrapping his way to 30 from 81 deliveries before a Starc yorker crashed into his off stump and reduced Sri Lanka to 2-47 with an hour to play.
If Karunaratne was positive from the outset, it could be argued Dilshan was reckless with the 36-year-old cracking his second delivery to the cover boundary with an expansive drive from Starc.
Dilshan's luck was out as soon as Watson was brought into the attack in the 10th over, the Australian all-rounder finding one of several cracks on a good length and generating just enough sideways movement to induce an edge to Matthew Wade behind the stumps.
By the time Clarke retired hurt for 57, he had joined openers David Warner (68) and Ed Cowan (56) as one of three batsmen to notch a half-century as Australia scrambled to a forced declaration in the shadows of the tea break.
Warner and Cowan had looked capable of a decisive partnership throughout the morning session, putting together their second century stand at the top of the Australian order, but were dismissed in relatively quick time leading up to lunch to give Sri Lanka a sniff.
Watson (five) and the promoted Mathew Wade (11) both fell to Herath shortly after the break, the former unstuck by a floated arm ball and the latter caught in the deep trying to force the pace.
Shaminda Eranga (1-53) had Phil Hughes (16) bowled off an under edge in between Herath's double strike and when Clarke was joined by Hussey, Australia had lost five quick wickets and still had work to do before they could consider themselves safe.
Other than the experienced middle-order pair, there was little resistance from the Australian batsmen as the afternoon wore on – an indication that the Blundstone Arena pitch was becoming increasingly difficult to score on.
Chanaka Welegedara (3-89) bobbed up to add Peter Siddle and Starc to Cowan's earlier scalp, backing up well after his three first-innings wickets.
Such was nature of the deck, Jayawardene faced an agonising 24 deliveries before scoring his first run and needs to play a supreme captain's knock on the last day to keep his side's hopes alive.
First Posted 17 December, 2012 6:18PM AEST