Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Dubai, 5th day January 12, 2014

Sri Lanka earn victory by respecting their limitations

In their win against Pakistan, Sri Lanka truly knew the boundaries of their ability and rarely sought to exceed them

"I know that I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing," goes a common misappropriation of a Socratic quote. It was originally intended to reveal something of the nature of knowledge itself, but has lately been used to advance the thought that awareness of personal limitation is wisdom.

The world of sport often charges in the opposite direction to this sentiment. Self-belief is deemed a pre-requisite for any elite sportsman - the ability to achieve in the face of great odds, and to overcome where many have tried and foundered. The idea that nothing is impossible is propagated even beyond athletic pursuit. Such notions may have their uses in cricket, but in Sri Lanka's second away-victory in almost five years, they have truly known the boundaries of their ability, and rarely sought to exceed them.

Asking the opposition to bat first, particularly in Asia, is sometimes construed as weakness. Many perceived greentops often have little in them for fast bowlers beyond the first session, and countless touring captains have unwittingly surrendered prime batting days to the opposition.

Angelo Mathews' preference to field first had of course been vindicated when Pakistan had been dismantled for 165, but not only had it been an unprecedented choice at this venue, Mathews had watched on for hours as Pakistan's experienced batsmen blunted his quick men's movement in Abu Dhabi. Shaminda Eranga and Suranga Lakmal had undoubtedly bowled well in the first Test, but there had been little in their Test history to suggest they were capable of skittling Pakistan as they did, much less that Nuwan Pradeep would be the key man to sparking the opposition's collapse. His team's feeble first-innings returns in the previous game, and the consequent hankering for safety-first were the more likely forces to driving Mathew's decision. Perhaps somewhat to his own surprise, Sri Lanka's own first innings could hardly have begun at a more advantageous time - just as the pitch had begun to slow and flatten.

"Apart from the first day, this was a regular Dubai wicket," Mathews said. "The spinners weren't able to be that successful on this wicket, because it was very helpful for the fast bowlers on the first day. After that it became a bit slow, but still good for the batsmen, as usual."

Sri Lanka's longest innings was more evidence of self-awareness coming good. Mahela Jayawardene sizes up situations better than any Sri Lanka player, and though that usually means he reads conditions well, on this occasion, he also knew the limitations an injury would impose on his own game. The favoured cover-drive and well-loved sweep were largely shelved, and even when Pakistan's bowlers strung together admirable spells, Jayawardene and Kaushal Silva did not venture a counterattack.

Control defined the bowling too, as Pakistan kept Sri Lanka in the field for 137.3 overs in the second innings. No wickets fell for almost two sessions on day three, but on a pitch that did not favour Rangana Herath's spin, Sri Lanka did not devise tricks for Misbah-ul-Haq or Younis Khan, they simply waited. At times it seemed Sri Lanka lacked flair and imagination, persisting with an in-out field that did not challenge batsmen, but as the fast bowlers had already made giant leaps in the series, Mathews may understandably have been wary of asking too much. In the end, the visitors waited Younis and Misbah out - both fell to balls that gleaned unexpected venom from the surface.

"The toss was a bit crucial but I thought you need to bowl in the right areas to get them out," Mathews said. "The bowlers did exactly that. I thought they were brilliant in the first innings as well as the second innings. Given the conditions, they had to put it on the right spot, which they did."

As the threat of rain loomed in their run chase, Sri Lanka veered towards conservatism again, small though their target was. In 16 overs before lunch, only 35 runs had been gathered. Such steady progress might have appeared foolish if the rains had actually come, but instead, Sri Lanka secured the last of their many moral victories in the match - their first century-stand for the first wicket since June 2011.

"We actually thought it might rain as well, but thankfully it didn't rain," Mathews said. "Sarfraz Ahmed was batting well and we wanted to stop him scoring runs, and to bowl to the new batsman. We couldn't let them off the hook by giving them too many runs. We had to be a bit cautious about the runs as well."

Six of Sri Lanka's XI have fewer than 17 Tests' experience, so perhaps Mathews will tread with caution in the near future as well. As Mathews exulted at the close, the inexperienced cricketers had all shown Test-match fortitude. Few would have imagined Sri Lanka could have an unassailable lead in the series without a big haul for Herath or a hundred for Kumar Sangakkara.

In the past, Sri Lanka's most prosperous periods have also featured their most attacking cricket, and while one win is not enough to prove that they are suddenly better suited to the reverse, they have shown that ambition need not breed every success.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

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