Sri Lanka fans have reasons to smile
It hasn't been an easy few years for fans of Sri Lanka's cricket. Major finals losses have left four deep gashes on the nation's psyche. Mention the last World Cup or World T20 in Colombo or Kandy, and you begin to discover wounds that are still raw. Some have turned off completely - such is the fickleness of Sri Lanka fans who have largely maintained some perspective on cricket. Others have cooled their passions until the side rises again.
As they broke Pakistan's siege, ducked and weaved around opposition blows, then took the high ground for themselves in Abu Dhabi, the team can only hope the nation was watching today.
Some context might help better understand the magnitude of what Sri Lanka achieved on the fourth day. That this is their first Test since March, and the first against a top-eight nation since close to a year is well known. Mindblowingly, they have not had a first-class practice match in the Gulf either. It is a young captain's first major Test assignment after ten months in which he has drawn considerable ire, and whose leadership remained a point of debate. They are playing at a venue where Pakistan felled cricket's top team six weeks ago, and one in which they have not lost, small though that sample size is.
As mitigating factors, the docility of the surface must be put forward first. Live grass still binds it together, much to Saeed Ajmal's chagrin. He has played on unresponsive surfaces before, however, but never in his career has he completed 42 overs without a wicket. In blunting him so far, Sri Lanka have already secured a psychological edge that may prove vital to the series' eventual unfolding.
Pakistan's pace attack also lacks the edge it had against South Africa. Mohammed Irfan is with the team, but is out through injury. None of the three playing seam bowlers have more than 15 Tests' experience. Still, they have bowled earnest lines, and testing lengths, all at sharp pace. On another day, against less resolute batting, Rahat Ali might have had a five-for. Junaid Khan might have completed his first ten-wicket haul.
So how heartening for Sri Lanka then, that with their two batting juggernauts already dismissed last evening, they lost only one wicket in the day? The young Sri Lanka players had been implored by their public to step up, fall in, show some courage. But in a year crammed with ODIs, so much talk of talent and future-proofing rang hollow while Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan bore the team's burden, misfiring middle-order and all.
Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews had played impressive support innings before, but masters of their own destiny now, they were nobody's sidekicks. The morning session had been treacherous on each of the first three days, and Pakistan bowled like they knew it. Junaid lived short-of-a-length, angling in, wobbling it away. Rahat bowled more stump-to-stump, full, teasing, accurate. Bilawal Bhatti manned the heavy weapons - bouncers at the ribs and the throat; a yorker now and then, just to check how closely the batsmen were watching.
"We had the fact that wickets had fallen early on in our minds," Chandimal said. "So we batted as tightly as we could in that first session, and we knew that if we survived there, we could pull the game back. Angelo and I handled the situation well."
After Sri Lanka had stared them down for an hour, the quicks received a second new ball, 18.3 overs into the day. They let loose again, three slips, short-leg, man out for the hook, the works. Chandimal proved once more he is a born Test batsman, floating through the barrage unscathed to hit a fifth fifty - he has only failed to reach that milestone in two of nine Tests. Mathews took a bruising, but thanks to a little luck, his outside edge did not - at least not enough of one to cost his team. Captain and vice-captain battled and batted, occasionally hitting high notes in harmony, but often strumming steadily, one leading, the other holding rhythm, then the reverse.
It was such music to the Sri Lanka fans in the stadium that they added their voices to the melody in return. As the evening approached and the match pivoted for the visitors, a crowd of Sri Lankans had acquired the nerve to mimic the chant they had heard with vigour from Pakistan supporters on the first two days. Joyful calls of Sri Lanka jeetega (Sri Lanka will win) amused some and annoyed others.
"We talked about a lot of things in the middle. Sometimes it was hard for me to play certain bowlers, sometimes it was tough for Angelo," Chandimal said. "So we talked about who should be scoring more runs at this time, and who should be more positive against which bowler. That's how we built our partnership."
Chandimal hooked on impulse and fell 11 short of what would have been his best Test hundred yet, but Mathews' steel did not run out. He had faced the first ball of the day on 0, and defended the last on 116. In between, he had faced 47 overs on his own. It is a match that could prove his making in Tests, because to sear 91 on the first day in bold riposte, then slow-cook a ton on the fourth, is a staggering feat that has unveiled unsuspected depth and dynamism to his game.
If Sri Lanka's young cricketers can build on Friday's gains, perhaps in years to come fans will look upon this match not simply as Mathews' coming of age, but as the turn of an era. The seeds of change were sown in Sydney a year ago, when three young batsmen defied the hosts. Sri Lanka had withered after Murali, and spent a year tending shoots. Soon, fans can hope, whatever happens on the last day here, it will be time for a harvest.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here