The old stagers take a bow
What Inzamam-ul-Haq's captaincy means to Pakistan is still the subject of much debate, but there's no doubt about the importance of his batting. Much of Pakistan's inconsistency on the field over the last decade can be linked to the violent flux of their batting line-up, but Inzamam - with flitting support from Yousuf Youhana - has stood out among the debris.
Javed Miandad is widely considered to be the best batsman Pakistan has ever produced, and it is an argument not many would contest. But just reflect on Inzamam's contributions. Of his 19 centuries, not including this one, 14 have been in winning causes and eight have been away from home; of Miandad's 23 centuries, nine contributed to victories and two were away. It isn't a conclusive argument in any sense, but it is a compelling one for the link between an in-form Inzamam and an in-form Pakistan.
Since assuming the captaincy, Inzamam's record, while statistically ordinary, makes for significant viewing. At crucial moments in his tenure, he has taken on the responsibility of guiding an inexperienced and unsettled batting side. His calm, unflustered 72 against New Zealand at Wellington earlier this year saw his team to an improbably comfortable series win, and after a thrashing at the hands of Virender Sehwag in Multan, he eked out a performance of impressive discipline and application from his batsmen in Lahore, leading the way with a subdued century to a nine-wicket win.
And now, after another drubbing at Faisalabad, he demanded and drew out a performance from his batsmen. Again he stood up, with his sixth century against Sri Lanka, and his 20th overall, even though, in truth, it wasn't a classic. He crept up to 79 yesterday, almost unnoticed. He took 14 balls to get off the mark and was stuck in the nineties today for a considerable period of time.
The powerful square cuts, and the checked drives were largely kept under wraps, but there were plenty of those trademark pummels down the ground off the left-arm spinners. In theory his century, along with that of Younis Khan's yesterday and assured cameos from Shoaib Malik and Yousuf Youhana, should have placed Sri Lanka behind the eight-ball.
Sri Lanka, however, bludgeoned a route back into contention, wiping out nearly half of the 270-run deficit, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of Sanath Jayasuriya. He has been as important a player in Sri Lanka's history as any. Back in 1996, he seemed to be on a manic, almost tyrannical pursuit of quick runs, but over time he has tempered his aggression with generous dollops of patience, restraint and an endless stamina. He has also developed - worryingly for Pakistan's chances here - the happy knack of building tall scores.
His batting, while he was captain, suffered (unlike Inzamam's), as he swayed uncertainly between the right amounts of aggression and restraint. Freed from those shackles, he has been revitalised and in this series, he has been merciless. His masterpiece at Faisalabad was a two-paced affair, and it showcased the versatility that has now made him Sri Lanka's highest run-scorer in Tests. In the afternoon session today, he barely paused for breath, a reprise of his 1996 role.
Rarely has brute force been as intoxicating as it has been off the bat of Jayasuriya, and rarely as exhilarating as it was today. There isn't much that is elegant about the way he tackles bowlers, certainly not when you have as graceful an opening partner as he does. His strokes between cover and third man, however, are uncompromising messages of dominance, but even that shouldn't take away from his natural sense of timing.
He pulled Rana Naveed-ul-Hasan's first ball today for four, and then unveiled the familiar slash over third man two balls later. Message sent. He became more orthodox later, sweeping the spinners and driving the medium-pacers nonchalantly square and down the ground, but scarcely less effectively. It was, in short, unlike Inzamam's uncharacteristic foray, an entirely typical Jayasuriya innings, ending the day within touching distance of a magnificent century in a session.
Maybe Sri Lanka's reliance on Jayasuriya hasn't been as heavy as Pakistan's on Inzamam, but the two have equally significant stories to tell in most of their nations' defining moments in the last decade. Both teams have undergone a process of rebuilding since the World Cup, and both have come into this match adjusting to life without important players. Both have called upon new heroes and while Pakistan found some here as Sri Lanka did in Faisalabad, the outcome of this match - and the series - is likely to rest on two old, tried and trusted warhorses with nearly seventy years, over 13,000 Test runs and 30 Test centuries between them.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.