Razzaq rises to the occasion
A crowd of a few hundred, searing heat and just over 200 runs in a full day's play. It rarely makes for a compelling day's cricket. Yet, as a strong and in-form Sri Lankan batting line-up slumped to 208 all out by the close, before near-empty stands, against a depleted and inexperienced Pakistan attack, here was as intriguing a day's cricket as any.
The key contest in this match, and throughout the series, was expected to be between Sri Lanka's flamboyant batting and Pakistan's equally breathtaking bowling. But if Faisalabad belonged to the aggression of Sanath Jayasuriya and the restraint of Thilan Samaraweera, Karachi today belonged to the discipline of Pakistan's bowlers. That the identity of the perpetrators was unexpected only added to the fascination.
After that trouncing at in the first Test, many questioned not only the wisdom of Pakistan picking two allrounders, Abdul Razzaq and Shoaib Malik, in the same XI, but also the Test credentials of Razzaq. Much of the criticism stemmed from his increasingly lacklustre bowling: his decline in that department has unbalanced both the Test and one-day teams. He had taken nine wickets in his last seven matches, and although he bowled well without luck at Faisalabad, Malik's emergence as a quality allrounder had led to calls for Razzaq's exclusion.
Today, he bowled as he had once done regularly when he first arrived in the Pakistan team, with accuracy, sharp movement and deceptive pace. He bowled the type of spells that prompted Wasim Akram to entrust him with the responsibility of bowling at the death in ODIs and had enabled him to pick up a Test hat-trick. Finding considerable seam movement, into and away from the batsmen, Razzaq picked up his first five-for (in his 30th Test) and manfully led an inexperienced bowling attack. He located a nagging length that was on neither the front foot or back, and said later - as he has done before - that his contribution as a bowler increases in accordance with his responsibility. Without Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami, the burden on his shoulders was immense - and so was his contribution.
Given that this attack had a grand total of 139 wickets between them - including Malik, who didn't bowl today - the discipline with which they backed Razzaq was the key. Collectively, this was Pakistan's most relentlessly controlled performance in the field for some time, chipping away at a strong batting order, picking up wickets and controlling runs. Both the debutants, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Riaz Afridi, very much medium-pace bowlers, were impressive in their penetration and aggression, and while Riaz deservedly picked up two wickets, Naved was unlucky not to take any. Along with Danish Kaneria, they conceded just eight extras, with only one wide; the catching was sharp and the fielding tight.
In contrast to the discipline Pakistan exerted, Sri Lanka's batsmen were notable for a lack of it. All of them got starts, and when Marvan Atapattu was cover-driving his way to an elegant 44, there seemed little chance of his team not reaching a sizable score. Atapattu carries a dignified and elegant air about him; his batting too is infused with the same, and when he drove Afridi through the covers and followed it with a stunning drive down the ground, it seemed 200 would be a formality and not a final destination. His own dismissal triggered a steady, if not spectacular, collapse but he would not have been pleased with the contributions of his team-mates - such as Kumar Sangakkara, recklessly hooking, or Jehan Mubarak, chasing outside off. Jayasuriya too, fresh from his momentous double-century at Faisalabad, will not have been too pleased with the manner of his dismissal or the decision.
That they remain in the match still is due in equal parts to the concern over Pakistan's batting (the pitch remains a good one to bat on), and a typically gutsy knock from the pint-sized Romesh Kaluwitharana. He is well remembered in these parts for the destruction he wreaked at the 1996 World Cup, and his aggression today took the score beyond 200 from a precarious 164 for 8. His dismissal, chasing a wide one from the dangerous Kaneria, exemplified the problems with Sri Lanka's batting.
As much as the discipline, the Pakistan camp will also be justifiably pleased with the character that they displayed today, doubly so given the context within which they arrived. With a quietly increasing, almost creeping, public distrust of Bob Woolmer - intensified by the puzzling selection of Younis Khan over Asim Kamal - the depleted nature of their pace attack and the defeat at Faisalabad, not many were expecting this to be anything other than a massacre.
When Inzamam won the toss and decided to field on what was widely considered a batting paradise, the knives were being sharpened. This Test match is far from over yet, but given the frailties in Pakistan's batting line-up - and Inzamam has almost demanded a performance here - we could be in for four more equally compelling days.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.