T20 kings show Test aptitude
As gloom came to rest above the Dubai stadium in the morning, Misbah-ul-Haq began his long, dreary filibuster. For 37 balls the match stalled on his unambitious blade and Sri Lanka's bowlers could do little more than settle into their channels. Though unsuccessful for long stretches, and lacking a team-mate to provide respite with a back-spell of bowling, the attack did not stray until stumps were drawn.
During Sri Lanka's Test-free months in 2013, they had counted their top Twenty20 ranking among their proudest achievements. In that format, variation rules and predictability ends careers. Somehow, while the short-form specialists were doing just enough to safeguard the team's place atop the table, the Test bowlers had developed a taste for attrition. Misbah seemed so set on defence that perhaps not even wayward deliveries would have stirred him from his reverie, but Sri Lanka's bowlers can be satisfied that, nine days into the series, they are yet to produce a truly poor spell between them.
Pakistan will no doubt be more content with their day's returns, having lost only four wickets and having pushed the match into a fifth day, where there is a chance rain will define the outcome. But on a pitch offering little for either seam bowlers or spinners, Sri Lanka's toil was admirable. The bowling coach will find little to fault with his side's pitch maps, and there were spells in which balls routinely passed the edge, having deviated off the surface.
Shaminda Eranga's aptitude for reverse swing was evident later in the day, particularly when he tailed one in late to Bilawal Bhatti, who jammed down on the ball, but could not prevent it spilling on to the stumps. Suranga Lakmal was the most menacing bowler with the second new ball, and Nuwan Pradeep showcased a gift for bowling tightly, after he had been the attacking option earlier in the Test.
"Bowling with patience has to happen in any Test match," Rangana Herath said afterwards. "No matter if the opposition scores quickly or slowly, if we can make run-making as difficult as possible, that is the characteristic of a good attack. I think we have that in this attack. There are things to improve, but we have the right attributes. There is a big improvement since the Australia tour at the end of 2012. If we get to play Tests in quick succession in the future, we'll be able to improve further."
Five-wicket hauls from Herath himself have featured in four out of five Sri Lanka wins since Muttiah Muralitharan retired, and it was his inability to strike that was most conspicuous. There has been little of the desert heat or sunshine that dries out this Dubai surface, however, and though Misbah was undone by a ball that ripped from middle stump to beat his forward defence, such deliveries have been rare, even out of the footmarks. Saeed Ajmal's woes in the series help illustrate just how unhelpful pitches have been for slow bowlers.
"To me, it still looks like a good track to bat on," Herath said. "I think I bowled a good delivery, but apart from that I couldn't get much spin from this pitch. I didn't try anything different with that ball. I did the same thing, but there was something extra from the pitch on that occasion, I guess."
It would be glib to glance at the scorecard and suggest Sri Lanka's attack still verges on toothless. If there has been a theme to the series, it has been that bowlers have bowled well, but batsmen batted better - at least beyond the first innings of each match. It would be unfair to expect this Sri Lanka attack to blow away a batting side on a flat surface, given its inexperience and the paucity of supporting personnel. When the umpires ruled Sri Lanka could not continue with fast bowling because of deteriorating light, Kumar Sangakkara was their only choice for a comically inept over.
With rain forecast for large periods of Sunday, Sri Lanka cannot afford to be complacent as they seek to restrict the Pakistan lead to no more than 150. Having dominated the first seven sessions of this Test, a draw would disappoint almost as much as a loss, but in waiting Misbah out, Sri Lanka have shown they do not lack for persistence.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here