March 14, 2000

Final Test evenly balanced after Pakistan take lead

Karachi, March 13: Muttiah Muralitharan continued to be an enigma for the Pakistan batsmen as Sri Lanka pulled themselves back into contention of the third and final cricket Test being played here on Monday at the National Stadium.

Muralitharan pushed Pakistan on the backfoot when he picked up two crucial wickets on Monday evening after the home team appeared to run away with the match after Shahid Afridi and Mohammad Naveed Qureshi had provided them with the best opening start of the series by scoring 70 in 18 overs.

But Muralitharan trapped Naveed in front of the wickets and then earned a controversial decision against Ijaz Ahmad to restrict Pakistan to 88 for three at stumps on the second day.

Ravindra Pushpakumara had provided Muralitharan the inroad by sending Shahid Afridi's off stump cartwheeling.

Pakistan had earlier dismissed Sri Lanka for 227 to secure a 29-run first innings lead. It was the first time Pakistan snatched the first innings advantage after surrendering a 171-run lead in Rawalpindi and 69-run lead in Peshawar. Sri Lanka won both the Tests by two wickets and 57 runs respectively.

Pakistan, who have never lost a Test here in 33 matches, lead the tourists by 117 runs with seven second innings wickets in hand. The match, which was heading Pakistan's way 14 overs before close, is now evenly balanced.

Nevertheless, Pakistan bowlers aggressive approach was undone by Muralitharan's menace who now has taken his tally of wickets in the series to 24. When Sri Lanka won the series here in 1995-96, Muralitharan had picked 18 wickets.

Interestingly, most of Muralitharan's victims in the series have fallen to bat and pad catches which proves the Pakistan stroke-makers inability to counter his spin and overcautious approach.

Muralitharan, the undoubtable spin king, achieved a personal milestone when he reached 250 wickets in 51 Tests by accounting for Naveed. The opener, who was looking compact in defence while scoring 27, found himself a bit unlucky to be declared leg before as the ball was apparently spinning down the leg-side.

But it was heartwarming to see Shahid Afridi stroke the ball on merit and show patience. He played sizzling drives until he was beaten by a real beauty from pacer Pushpakumara. Afridi's 59-ball 34 was spiced with six boundaries.

Until Pushpakumara dismissed Afridi and Muralitharan got his acts together, the Sri Lankans, for the first time, appeared a disjointed unit. Their shoulders were drooped and the body language showed that they had run out of steam.

The reason maybe that they had already clinched the series in Peshawar. The other reason might be that they are at the fag end of a wonderful tour and consequently keen to return home early.

Sanath Jayasuriya's leadership also came into question for the first time in the series when he delayed the introduction of Muralitharan until the 17th over. A bowler, who has mentally destroyed the Pakistan batsmen, should have been brought into the attack much earlier.

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka's belated fightback on the second day's cannot discredit Pakistan who dominated six of the seven hours play. Day's play was extended because Pakistan's over-rate was well below the requirement. Only a miracle can save them from being penalized by match referee Brian Hastings.

Waqar Younis showed his experience of bowling on a green top track by pitching the ball upto the batsmen while Shoaib Akhtar displayed his speed with controlled line and length. Shahid Afridi exhibited his utility by snapping up two wickets.

The double change in the team management was also evident as there appeared a set plan and purpose behind the bowling. The Sri Lankan batsmen were not given much width or room to play their trademark extravagant shots. Field placings were near perfect while the bowling changes were timely and calculated.

But Pakistan's strategy was nearly pierced by pint-sized Romesh Kaluwitharana who punctuated nine boundaries in his 29-ball 42. But alert fielding restricted the little dynamite from inflicting further damage when Naveed's accurate throw from square-leg beat the Sri Lankan wicket-keeper by yards who tried to steal an impossible second run.

Jayasuriya was deliberately fed outside the off-stump before the skipper perished when Ijaz took a sharp catch off Shoaib Akhtar. Waqar Younis kept the ball on the right spot until he found the outside edge of Mahela Jayawardena's bat after having trapped Marvan Atapattu in front of the wickets off a sharp banana-like inswinger.

Russel Arnold, who missed a century by one run in Peshawar, was not given free strokes on his favourite leg-side. He eventually lost his patience and slashed a wide delivery off debutant Irfan Fazil to be smartly caught at third slip by Younis Khan.

Indika de Saram, who had just two scoring shots in his 22-ball five, tried to take liberty against Shahid Afridi and was caught at mid-on. Tillekeratne Dilshan tried to cut a ball too close to his body and caught by Moin Khan who had given him a life three runs earlier.

Dilshan masterminded Sri Lanka's revival after they had slumped to 46 for three in the first hour. He added 54 runs for the fourth wicket with Arnold and remained a silent spectators in another partnership of 54 with Kaluwitharana.

Waqar Younis finished as the most impressive bowler with two for 39 but Shoaib Akhtar was the most successful bowler with three for 52. Shahid Afridi bagged two for 40 but Irfan Fazil had a nightmare debut when he was hit for 35 runs from his four overs for a solitary wicket.