A defeat tinged with optimism
Any match is merely a stepping stone on the long and winding road to the summit of international cricket. Several teams attempt the climb; some ascend, others stumble, but only one can raise its flag at the pinnacle. A genuine team effort is no guarantee of success although it is essential. There is scope for individual heroics but weak links must be few or non-existent; the journey must offer avenues for development of inexperienced team members and smooth over inevitable variations in performance.
When an inexperienced player beginning his personal journey at international level nears a milestone that might help him more than his country, what do you do? Is it tough love, or will a little love now make him tougher later? These were the questions circling Asad Shafiq's approach to a second Test century. Was it right to allow him to reach a personal landmark that would narrow Pakistan's chances of drawing a low-key Test series?
In truth, the odds were stacked in Shafiq's favour. Pakistan were ahead but not by enough. They were a spin bowler light on a wicket too placid for Pakistan's pacers. Only weight of runs would exert enough pressure on Sri Lanka's batsmen to crack under the interrogation of the best spin bowler to play in Sri Lanka since Murali's retirement. Even if the arguments for a declaration had been more powerful, it would still have been right to enable another hundred in Test cricket for Pakistan's promising middle-order batsman.
Misbah-ul Haq, as often is the way in Test cricket, called that one correctly. His return, after missing the first Test in Galle, had already refocused Pakistan's efforts in the series, and underlined the captain's importance to his team's competitiveness.
But it was youth that triumphed here for Pakistan. Azhar Ali and Shafiq topped the batting averages, a healthy development for Pakistan's middle order. Junaid Khan did the same with the bowling, excelling despite Umar Gul's drop in form. Even Adnan Akmal showed rare spunk for a modern Pakistan wicketkeeper.
As disappointing as a Test defeat is, especially with the level of performance in the first Test, Pakistan's recovery is a good omen. Sri Lanka will be happy but doubtful of their superiority over this Pakistan side, which is testament enough.
Above all, any series that sees several young players make a strong case to help the team on the next stage of the climb is at least a mini triumph. Better still that these seem to be players with the temperament for Test cricket's challenges.
Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here