On the 59th anniversary of their first Test win, Pakistan’s fast bowlers moved on sensationally from the demoralising fielding debacle in Abu Dhabi, but the spinners didn’t enjoy such good fortune. Even though Misbah-ul-Haq took three slip catches off the quicks, Taufeeq Umar dropped Kumar Sangakkara on 27 and Younis Khan reprieved Rangana Herath off the first ball he faced. Consequently 73 for 5 became 154 for 6, and 154 for 8 turned into 239 all out. However, the early damage was so severe that the day still belonged to Pakistan, especially because the openers brought the deficit under 200 in the nine testing overs bowled at them.
That the successful completion of regulation catches came as a huge relief in the morning tells the story. Three days after they had been ground into the Abu Dhabi dust thanks largely to their own fielders, Umar Gul and Junaid Khan somehow found the heart to create opportunity after opportunity once again. It was a new-ball pitch, and the two hit the seam with regularity to take five wickets in the first session.
Both teams misread the track to an extent. Pakistan dropped the big-hearted Aizaz Cheema in favour of left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman. Expecting a flat track, Sri Lanka chose to bat first. As it turned out, with the ball seaming around in the first session, Gul and Junaid had to make up for the absence of the third seamer with 10-over spells before lunch, including a wicket in the last over of the session.
The Sri Lanka top order was left with the task of seeing the new ball off. While not quite a demon, the pitch had enough seam and variable bounce in it to keep the Pakistan fast bowlers in business. True to their nature, they exploited every bit of life on offer. Gul got the ball to swing into the left-handed top three, and on the odd occasion got it to seam away after shaping up to swing in. The variable bounce was obvious from how two early edges didn’t carry to the cordon, and how on two occasions Gul missed out on lbws because of extra bounce.
The top order bar Sangakkara came up short. Both Lahiru Thirimanne and Tharanga Paranavitana made the instinctive correction of planting the front foot across to cover the movement, leaving them prone to the balls moving in. Thirimanne survived one such shout because of the height, but was trapped dead plumb immediately after. Paranavitana played himself into a shell before finally playing a reckless cut off Gul. At first slip, Misbah held the ball close to his chest. Finally someone other than the wicketkeeper had taken a catch in 178 overs of bowling.
More chances would soon come. Mahela Jayawardene got the classical Gul delivery that angled in, pitched short of a length, drew him into the shot, then held its line, and took a healthy edge. Misbah was there to accept the low catch again. Dilshan played a loose punch outside off to give Misbah his third. Junaid’s contribution to the dismissal cannot be overstated, though. In his sixth over, he went round the stumps, angled the ball in, making Dilshan play, and the open face did the rest.
At 45 for 4, after six overs each for the new-ball bowlers, Pakistan would have wished they had Cheema to bowl first change. In his absence, Gul and Junaid put in the extra hours. After Gul’s unbroken 10-over spell, Junaid came back to trouble Mathews from round the stumps. Even as Mathews walked down the track to counter the movement, both his edges were beaten repeatedly until he nicked Junaid to Adnan Akmal, the only catching man Pakistan haven’t had to worry about.
In between, Sangakkara played a rare loose shot, an uppish square-drive off Ajmal, but Taufeeq was late to attempt a high catch to his left at backward point. Missing his partner in crime from the first Test, the injured Prasanna Jayawardene, Sangakkara had no option but to score as many as possible before he was left stranded. He scored 49 of the 76 runs that came during his time after lunch.
Even though Rehman trapped the debutant keeper Kaushal Silva to end a 54-run partnership, the pitch had settled down and the ball had become soft. Pakistan stopped trying to get Sangakkara out, but at the same time they were lousy enough to forget to bring the field up for the last ball of an over. Sangakkara gladly retained the strike, but exposed Dhammika Prasad to Saeed Ajmal for four balls of the next over. Prasad had no clue which way Ajmal was turning the ball, and despite a customary drop from Mohammad Hafeez, a thick edge from him was accepted by Akmal. Sangakkara took a risk against the first ball of the next over, but holed out to long-on. It could have become three wickets in four balls, but Younis Khan let through a low chance from Herath.
The highest partnership of the innings, 75 for the ninth wicket, followed. Chanaka Welegedara and Herath fought bravely after tea, taking blows on their bodies, and putting behind them the plays and misses. Welegedara in particular drove well through the covers, hooked Gul for a six during a heated over, and slogged Abdur Rehman for another even as he fought cramps. He added 48 to his career 67 runs. Ajmal, though, kept coming at them, and made sure Sri Lanka were again dismissed inside the first day.