Ajmal finds form in slow battle
Sri Lanka 220 for 5 (Sangakkara 52, Ajmal 2-62) v Pakistan
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
The Sharjah surface - largely devoid of pace, lateral movement and turn - provided the setting for a game of patience on the first day of the deciding Test of the series. Sri Lanka, needing only a draw to win their first away series since 1999-00 (excluding those in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe), batted with caution to wear the bowlers down on a pitch that was not conducive for shot making because of its slowness.
Pakistan's attack, however, was resolute and remained accurate throughout. The upshot was a stalemate of sorts, with a run-rate of 2.44 and only five wickets falling in 90 overs.
Pakistan's spinners played a defining role. The left-armer Abdur Rehman, who replaced the injured Bilawal Bhatti, varied his pace and trajectory, and constantly attacked the stumps with tremendous accuracy to return figures of 24-9-45-1.
Pakistan's biggest gain, however, was Saeed Ajmal's return to form. Having taken only five wickets in 114.2 ovrs in the first two Tests, Ajmal was wicketless for 17 overs today before he inflicted two quick blows to severely erode Sri Lanka's position. Ajmal also tested the batsmen consistently with his flight and variations, and had an economy rate of only 2.13 after 29 overs.
Misbah-ul-Haq's team would have had a better day, too, had they had more luck with umpire decisions and used the review system cleverly. They reviewed not-out lbw decisions against Dimuth Karunaratne and Angelo Mathews, but replays ruled in favour of the batsman by narrow margins. Had either of those appeals, from Ajmal and Rehman, been upheld by the on-field umpire, those decisions would not have been overturned had the batsmen asked for a review.
The Mathews moment was Pakistan's 13th failed review, out of 14 in this series. They also had an out decision overturned when replays indicated, quite bizarrely, that the ball would have passed high over the stumps, after Prasanna Jayawardene had been struck below the knee roll by Ajmal. The batsman had made a long stride forward but the predicted bounce was of a degree not consistent with what had been seen before on this surface.
And then there were the missed opportunities. Three deliveries after the failed review against Karunaratne, and before the batsman had added to his 14, he inside-edged Ajmal on to his pad; the wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed, however, was so busy appealing for an lbw that he didn't bother catching the ball. On 15, Sangakkara tried to sweep Rehman and the ball lobbed off the glove to Younis Khan at first slip, but because they had only one review remaining Pakistan decided not to use it to try and overturn the not-out decision. Sangakkara went on to make 52.
And late in the day, Mohammad Talha dropped Mathews before he had scored the first of his 24 runs, though it was a difficult chance off his own bowling. That Pakistan's resolve did not waver despite those setbacks was to their credit, considering the pitch.
The early signs for the fast bowlers weren't encouraging. With the new ball doing nothing off a good length, they resorted to bouncing the batsmen to try and unsettle them. Pakistan made the first breakthrough when Talha, playing his first match since his debut in the terror-stricken Test in Lahore in 2009, was brought back for his second spell, after Junaid had bowled seven consecutive overs on a sunny day. Running in hard, he got a couple of balls to straighten off the pitch and one of them took the edge of Kaushal Silva's bat, ending the opening stand on 31.
Rehman had bowled only two overs in the first session and he struck immediately after the break, beating Karunaratne in the flight to induce an edge to first slip. Mahela Jayawardene, his split webbing not yet fully healed, came in at 65 for 2 to forge a 60-run stand with Sangakkara.
The next breakthrough came out of the blue, after Sangakkara had just passed 50 with a classy straight drive off Junaid. Two balls later he flicked firmly, but also uppishly, and Khurram Manzoor held the catch at midwicket.
The first two sessions had yielded only 133 runs in 57 overs but Mahela was far more aggressive after tea, accelerating towards a half-century. He did not get there, though, because Ajmal induced an inside edge that lobbed off the pad to short leg. Shortly afterwards, Dinesh Chandimal mis-hit a doosra from Ajmal and was caught by Asad Shafiq running back from mid-on. Sri Lanka had lost three wickets for 41.
Mathews and Prasanna prevented against any further damage by painstakingly adding 54 runs in 24.4 overs. Both batsmen were beaten by Junaid's reverse swing, though, and fortunate to survive reviews against the spinners. How long they, and Sri Lanka's tail, last on the second day could shape the result of the series.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo