COLOMBO  -  A compact century from Tom Latham and a more adventurous one from Dhananjaya de Silva headlined an absorbing day of cricket at the Colombo’s P Sara Oval. After De Silva’s 109 off 148 balls - of which 77 came off only 86 balls on the third day - carried Sri Lanka to 244, Latham stood up to Sri Lanka’s spin barrage on a track that showed signs of breaking up.

A sweep-happy Latham forged a crucial, unbroken 70-run stand with BJ Watling and trimmed the deficit to 48 at stumps on day three. This was Latham’s tenth Test hundred; only John Wright (12) has more hundreds among New Zealand Test openers. Watling, meanwhile, surpassed his former captain Brendon McCullum to become the leading run-getter among New Zealand Test wicketkeepers.

Both Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor had nicked off cheaply, but Latham saw off the new ball and later deployed a proactive approach against spin. His strengths - a still head, decisive footwork and intense focus - were on bright display against Dilruwan Perera, Lasith Embuldeniya and de Silva. He was particularly strong off the back foot, cutting and pulling with purpose, but when the ball was full enough for the sweep, he nailed it into the leg-side gaps. As many as 81 of his 111 runs came on the leg side.

It was only fitting that Latham had raised his half-century with a hard, flat sweep to the square-leg boundary off Embuldeniya. He then reached his hundred with a full-blooded pull to the midwicket boundary against Dilruwan’s break. Watling, however, struggled against the ripping turn and bounce generated by Dilruwan and Embuldeniya, but somehow diffused those spells and went to stumps unbeaten on 25.

Dilruwan had posed a greater threat with the new ball, his biting offbreak removing Jeet Raval for a nine-ball duck. Williamson, who had been dismissed for single-digit scores in both innings in Galle, looked more assured here until he guided tearaway Lahiru Kumara straight into the lap of second slip for 20 off 28 balls.

Latham and Taylor then repaired the early damage with contrasting methods. While Latham defended resolutely and refrained from reaching out for the ball outside off, Taylor engaged in signature slog-sweeps and regular trips down the track. During one such advance down the track, he failed to meet the pitch a turning ball from Embuldeniya and tickled an outside edge to slip for 23.

Latham, though, took charge of New Zealand’s reply and added to Sri Lanka’s woes. Niroshan Dickwella hurt his fingernail after lunch and gave up wicketkeeping duties to substitute Dinesh Chandimal before captain Dimuth Karunaratne left the field too because of a thigh complaint.

However, it was Sri Lanka who had owned the third morning. De Silva had stepped out to bat when Sri Lanka were 93 for 4 and could have been dismissed on 9 on the second day itself had Trent Boult, who has grabbed several blinders over the years, not dropped an absolute sitter off his own bowling. There were streaky inside edges that eluded the leg stump and top edges that cleared the outfielders, but de Silva counterbalanced that with some exquisite strokes.

He collared left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel and struck three successive fours off him, the pick of them an inside-out shot over extra-cover. It provided a throwback to his first runs in Test cricket: a similarly regal inside-out loft off Steve O’Keefe in Pallekele in 2016.

Ajaz, however, found success at the other end when he pinned the other overnight batsman Dilruwan with an arm ball that skidded off the pitch. Tim Southee then went around the wicket and softened Suranga Lakmal with a short-ball barrage, which resulted in the batsman taking his eyes off and fending one behind to Watling. In his next over, Southee removed Embuldeniya to come within one scalp of joining Boult in reaching 250 Test wickets in the same game.

De Silva continued to cut and drive with authority in addition to taking calculated risks with the tail. He had moved into the 90s with a top-edged six off Boult and then nearly dragged Southee back onto his stumps when he was 99. Two balls later, with No. 11 Kumara for company, he got to the landmark with a carved four over backward point. De Silva celebrated by blowing kisses in the direction of the crowd even as Karunaratne was seen pumping his fist in the dressing room. There would be no such joy for Sri Lanka in the last two sessions of the day.