Azhar ends century drought, sets up Pakistan's lead
Azhar Ali joined Chetan Chauhan, Ken "Slasher" Mackay and Mike Brearley among others as specialist batsmen with 1000 Test runs and no centuries, but spent only 37.1 overs in their company, reaching a maiden Test hundred in his 11th foray past 50. In the process he helped Pakistan recover from the loss of their openers early on the second day and, with support from Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, laid the platform for a substantial first-innings lead.
The Sri Lanka bowlers toiled honestly for the best part of the day, but all they could manage was to slow down Pakistan's march towards the lead. Pakistan's run-rate might have been similar to their attempt in the first Test, which played a role in the eventual draw, but this was completely different from that go-slow. For starters the intent was obvious on the first evening, when the openers raced to 42 in nine overs. Then Suranga Lakmal's outswing early and the quick loss of the openers to Dhammika Prasad made them put their heads down.
Crucially both the big partnerships featured acceleration. In the first 12.3 overs of their stand leading up to lunch, Azhar and Younis had added just 31. By the time they had batted 27 overs together, the partnership read 75. When the two were separated three minutes before tea, they had put together 117 in 39.5 overs. Azhar and Misbah added only 18 in their first 10 overs together; in the next 10 they scored 45.
By then, though, the new ball had been taken, we were in the final hour of the day, and Azhar was 14 short of his century. He went from 86 to 90 with a thick edge over the slips. Over the next 30 balls he faced he sucked you into the drama of a man trying to reach that elusive century. He hit short-and-wide deliveries and half-volleys straight to the fielders, he jumped out to spin to recover just in time, he ran anxiously, he smiled, he agonised. Misbah kept telling him, in Punjabi, to do it in singles.
Azhar finally attempted a paddle sweep on 98, the ball hit the keeper's pad, deflected towards third man, and Azhar started to celebrate as he turned for the second run, giving the umpire Tony Hill no chance to even consider the possibility of byes. The replays of course were inconclusive, but it was just as well because he would soon be given lbw off an inside edge, with his score still 100.
Azhar could be forgiven for taking the focus off the rest of the game for the last 11 overs of the day, during which only 26 runs came, if not for a full year of solidity he has brought to the middle order, for today's work alone. When he and Younis came together on this new-ball pitch, the ball was still seaming around a bit and two wickets had fallen in 2.3 overs. Sri Lanka, though, couldn't have been entirely happy at that time. Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene had dropped both the openers off successive deliveries from Lakmal, costing the side 11 runs and more importantly six valuable overs with the new ball.
The wickets had come nonetheless, and both the dismissed batsmen had been troubled consistently by the movement. Mohammad Hafeez, though, was unlucky, falling lbw to a ball headed down leg. The man responsible for both the dodgy lbws in the day was Hill, but the rest of his day was a big improvement on a horror first Test. He was alert enough to warn Prasad twice for running onto the danger area, and rightly rule against a caught-behind appeal off the bowling of Dilshan. Azhar's bat had hit the ground creating the sound, but in live time he looked in real trouble.
Azhar was 32 off 82 then, and had been through a nervous moment or three. Twice he had tried to hit spin over the infield but found mid-off and mid-on on the bounce. Lakmal's mix of yorkers and short bowling asked questions too in the post-lunch session. On one occasion Azhar fended with his eyes off the ball. In comparison Younis remained almost inconspicuous, falling seamlessly into his defend-nudge-sweep routine against the spinners, striking at around 50 per 100 balls without seeming to make an effort. He played both the regulation and paddle sweep well, not letting Rangana Herath and Dilshan bowl where they would have wanted to.
Turn, though, wasn't Pakistan's main concern. It was the nibble in the morning and the slight reverse in the afternoon that asked questions. For strange reasons, though, Dishan tried his best to get the reversing ball changed. Equally strangely, Rangana Herath prematurely moved over the wicket, which allowed Azhar to open up by helping himself to free runs on the leg side.
From the time Azhar paddled Herath's over-the-stumps line for four, he scored 62 off 119 before reaching his 90s, a big improvement on his strike-rate otherwise. The fast bowlers were now tired, the ball was old, and the sense of adventure got the better of Younis, who reached his fifty with a six before playing Dilshan on in the penultimate over before tea.
Misbah started cautiously, broke free with a six over midwicket, and then found the accumulation mode. He was the calming voice during Azhar's nervous 90s, and now holds the responsibility of batting Sri Lanka out of the game, at a pace that allows Pakistan enough time to win the match.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo