A gamble that almost backfired
We realised in the first session at the SSC that it was going to be a hard Test for us. We took a gamble by not batting first and it nearly backfired. Knowing full well how hard it can be to take wickets here, especially on days two and three, I thought there was something in the pitch on the first morning that we could take advantage of. Taufeeq Umar set them off really well with a fifty at almost a run-a-ball. We knew Pakistan would come back at us strongly as they are a quality side. I thought they batted really well to score 550. We had to weather the storm.
The SSC track used to be quite sporting, giving assistance to the batsmen, seamers and spinners over five days. The curator's job is to prepare a pitch that will last five days. But with the weather conditions, we probably played only three days of cricket on that pitch. In that sense it is a bit difficult to judge whether it was a poor track for Test cricket or not. Had we been playing on a proper fifth-day pitch, there may have been a result. You have to take everything into perspective.
When the opposition piles on runs to that extent, it can be deflating for a fielding captain. To motivate yourself in such a situation, you have to make sure you and your team-mates seize the moment. We had to stay patient, and not think too much about Pakistan's score. It was up to us to bat session by session. In the middle order we had three ducks in the top five, but despite that I was quite happy with our performance in the Test.
As a fielding captain, I like to go with the flow and whether it's Tests, ODIs or T20s, the only way to take control is by picking up wickets. I tend to keep men in catching positions, even in Tests. I have seen a lot of captains do different things. I like to create those pressure situations which would make the batsmen make mistakes. You need to be proactive. Some tactics work, some don't. At the end of the day, you should be positive and back your tactics. If you get new ideas you should see if it would work by having a chat with the bowlers. That's why I experiment a bit more. Sometimes I set defensive fields to plug the boundaries.
Bowlers always come to me for suggestions on the field settings they want. I always give them the first preference. If they run out of ideas, that's when I step in and give them my inputs and see whether they are okay with that. It's always the bowlers' options first and foremost. You work with the bowler in question, find out his game-plan and also analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the batsman. You maneuver your fielders accordingly. It also creates doubts in the batsman's mind. In situations where the batsmen are piling runs, attacking fields can create that pressure.
Regarding our seamers' performance, Nuwan Kulasekara tried his best on a pitch that didn't offer much. But he was there and thereabouts and still asked questions. Nuwan Pradeep couldn't find his consistency. There's no point having pace if you cannot create pressure by bowling consistently in that corridor, where it would pose questions for the batsman. But if you spray it around and give width it's always going to be tough to create that pressure. That is where he lacks; he hasn't played much of first-class or senior cricket.
Pakistan's Junaid Khan, on the other hand, created some nice angles (from round the wicket) and it put us in a bit of trouble. But I felt our batsmen put a lot of pressure on themselves. I think the mindset was more on the negative side on the fourth evening, trying to see off those 10-15 overs. Junaid bowled really well to create that pressure.
The Pallekele Test is crucial for us to seal our first Test series win in three years. We need to go with the intention of winning the Test. I have said before that going in with a negative mindset and playing for a draw will never work. Pakistan are a quality outfit, and if we don't play to win, then we cannot take up the challenge posed by them. I will tell my guys to play hard cricket and be positive. It will definitely be a sporting pitch and livelier than the one at SSC, but a lot will depend on the weather.
Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene is the country's leading Test run-scorer