Watershed moment for Sri Lanka quicks
On Sri Lanka's last away tour, in Australia, the touring pace attack had been belittled so extensively by former players and media, the then-captain Mahela Jayawardene was called upon routinely to defend his bowlers. "We probably don't have the pace which you think is required to win Test matches in Australia," he had said. "But we've got guys who can bowl good lines and create pressure in different ways."
Even that modest standard largely proved beyond Sri Lanka's quicks on that tour, where Rangana Herath seemed the only attacking force. His team-mates often failed to even provide him the courtesy of their support. Twelve months later, on the first day in Dubai, Herath was a sideshow. Suddenly made sharper by Nuwan Pradeep's introduction, Sri Lanka's pace attack went from miserly to menacing, as the bowling coach who had been appointed in the aftermath of the Australia tour, watched on.
It is often hard to pinpoint the forces that drive collective success, just as it may be simplistic to blame a single coach or player for a group's failure. But as Sri Lanka's fast bowlers provided the strongest indication of their penetrative potential yet, it was not difficult to see Chaminda Vaas' influence, perhaps for the first time. Like Vaas was for so much of his career, Sri Lanka were persistent without being destructive and pernicious without being devastating.
Six days into the tour, Sri Lanka's most surprising leaps have been made by the pace attack. The young batsmen may have led the team's revival in Abu Dhabi, but their ability had been suspected for some time. Since his appointment, Vaas has spoken often about the simplicity of Test match bowling - of achieving a consistent line and length first, then allowing the other virtues to flow into one's game. There was no banana swing or vicious lift for Sri Lanka's fast bowlers on Wednesday, but by lunch they had conceded only 53 from 24 overs. Even in his prime, Vaas might have been proud of a pitch map that read like Suranga Lakmal's clustered returns. Jayawardene's hope that Sri Lanka's bowlers could attack through pressure was being realised.
"Test cricket is all about basics for fast bowlers," Vaas said. "They were a bit unlucky in the first two hours and when they came for lunch we were talking about how to get the ball into the right areas, and bowl good lines and lengths. They did what we wanted and got the rewards."
The fast bowlers had been accurate in large stretches in Abu Dhabi, but in his first match in a year, Pradeep brought the edge. Lakmal and Shaminda Eranga pitched it on a length and swung it away, but Pradeep hurried the batsmen and moved it both ways off the seam. Having watched so many balls beat the outside edge, the one that jagged in removed Ahmed Shehzad and Mohammed Hafeez, who had begun to habitually step towards off. The switch had been among Vaas' own favourite manoeuvres, and though at the end of the day Pradeep pleaded ignorance on how he managed it, he has never shown such aptitude for swing and seam in international cricket before.
Sri Lanka had also begun speaking with a new confidence about their fast men after the first Test, and the rewards of riding on a cloud of good vibes was evident in Eranga's bowling. Several times he beat the bat with balls that moved late towards the right-hand batsmen in the air, then straightened off the seam. When he eventually drew the edge with that ball, he took the two wickets that sparked Pakistan's post-lunch collapse. Lakmal was perhaps the unluckiest of the three bowlers, having had a batsman dropped off his bowling and several edges fall just out of reach.
As impressive and unexpected a scoreline of 129 for 7 is, it is important to remember Pakistan have hardly been resistant to collapsing in recent years. The last occasion in which Sri Lanka's fast bowlers had claimed the first seven wickets in an innings had been against Pakistan in 2009, for instance. In Australia, batsmen better-drilled in playing the moving ball had been capable of hitting bowlers off their lengths, so the mid-year series against England - whose own batsmen's techniques have been robust against swing at home - looms as a defining challenge for this group of players.
It might be years before Vaas' true effect on this attack is fully known. Lakmal's average is still over 60 and Pradeep only just managed to whittle his down to double figures with his third scalp of the day. But in Sri Lanka's best away bowling effort since the 2011 Test in Durban, hints of progress have begun to emerge.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here