Tale of intrigue as Karachi serves up another thriller
From the first day of this match, when Abdul Razzaq led as inexperienced a Pakistan attack as can be recalled in recent history, and unexpectedly bundled out Sri Lanka for 208, you sensed something was up with this match. Gradually, over the next three days, it built up a reservoir of individual performances, sub-plots and stories that suggested a climatic last-day, last-session finish. It didn't quite get there, but as Pakistan stumbled, faltered and eventually got home on the increasingly assured and composed shoulders of Shoaib Malik, here was a match which had pretty much everything.
Neither side deserved to lose, but it says something stirring about modern-day Test cricket that when it offers exactly that option, one team still lost today. The margin of victory, comfortable at first glance, shouldn't mask the tightness of this contest.
Every performance produced a riposte, every pivotal moment a counterbalance. Razzaq's belated rediscovery of his capabilities as a Test bowler and the contrasting centuries of Younis Khan and Inzamam-ul-Haq were answered by Jayasuriya's brutal and thrilling counterattack on the third evening, and Sangakkara's tenacious rearguard action on the fourth; Kaneria's indefatigable, and occasionally mesmeric spells on the same evening were almost undone by first, Vaas's stubbornness with the bat and later, his cunning with the ball on the final day. If Attapattu's marvellously athletic one-handed catch at mid-off seemed to turn the tide Sri Lanka's way at 57-4, then Sangakkara dropping Malik turned it yet again.
It helped that both teams were evenly matched, in that both were missing key players. If Sri Lanka missed a matchwinner in Muralitharan, then Pakistan could claim the absence of at least four first-choice pace bowlers. But the contest, as it progressed, also acted as a reliable barometer of the state of both camps as they head down under for tours to Australia and New Zealand.
Bob Woolmer and Pakistan will look at their first Test series together with mixed feelings, and a feeling of familiarity. Woolmer's first few months in charge would have exposed him to the full vagaries of Pakistan's talent, and in particular, their fragile batting. Their upper order, after the debacle of Faisalabad, again looked unreliable here, none more so than in a familiar collapse on the last afternoon.
But Woolmer and the captain will also take some heart from this: that at key points in the last year, Pakistan has found players to respond to adversity, and it is a valuable trait. They did it against New Zealand at the start of the year, they did it against India after being ground into the dust of Multan, and now they have done it again after the demoralizing defeat in Faisalabad. When they arrived in Karachi amidst much gloom and scepticism regarding their morale and team management, they relied on a couple of unsung heroes, as well as some familiar ones. Above all, the continuing evolution of Danish Kaneria into a matchwinning bowler will have pleased the team, particularly with a long, arduous tour of Australia round the corner.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, will be rightly disappointed. Not only that they lost an opportunity to win an overseas series - it would have been their third series win in Pakistan - but also because at one point, with Sangakkara and Samaraweera becoming increasingly adhesive, they had a real chance of saving this match. In the light of Pakistan's collapse, they could even have won it. Sangakkara's innings yesterday encapsulated the new resilience that runs through their team, but his dismissal and that of other batsmen on the first day, also points to their Achilles' heel - their lack of discipline. With the experience and drive of a rejuvenated Jayasuriya, however, they will have fewer concerns about their batting than they do about their bowling.
Any side would be the lesser without Murali, and while progress has been made to find penetrative back-up for him and Vaas, they will struggle - as they did here - to bowl sides out twice. Dilhara Fernando, Rangana Herath and Farveez Maharoof impressed in patches throughout this match, but rarely suggested that they could run through a line-up.
Pakistan possessed a wildcard in Kaneria and Sri Lanka, for all their valiant efforts, didn't. Eventually, though, that they consider this an opportunity lost says a lot about how they have developed over the last year, and, as Attapattu pointed out after the match, they will take significant positives out of this defeat.
For a stadium with a heritage of compelling contests as rich as that of the National Stadium in Karachi, it is almost criminal that this was only its second Test in nearly two and a half years. This is a ground that saw Fazal Mahmood and Khan Mohammad share 20 Australian wickets in a 9-wicket win in 1956-57. It is one where Pakistan scraped home to 66 for 7 against the left-arm spin of Nick Cook in 1983-84. It is a ground on which Inzamam marshalled a last-wicket stand of 57 to pull off a one-wicket win nearly ten years ago against Australia, and one where England pulled off the unthinkable in the gloom of December 2000. This match will rest alongside those as an equally fascinating and compelling contest, although that there was barely a crowd, and thus an atmosphere until the very last session, does scant justice to that heritage.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist based in Karachi