Sri Lanka take comfort from new heroes
Bowlers bowling well, batsmen batting better, Pakistan toiling, Sri Lanka staying patient, earnest line-and-length, flat pitches and attrition. Day two in Sharjah has mimicked so many others in an abrasive series, but for the visitors, there was something new to cheer for.
If Sri Lanka's strategy in dry pitches such as this could be summed up in a phrase, it is probably- bat first, bat big and let the spinners loose. In Sharjah, they attempted a return to that blueprint. Though two of their old juggernauts remained, it was Sri Lanka's new heroes, wielding an unfamiliar mode of operation, who were best at bolstering the team's position. After the long break in Tests, this tour was perhaps always going to be one of discovery, but few would have expected to unearth so much resilience in so many places.
Angelo Mathews is having the series of his career so far. He arrived in the UAE as a captain-in-training but will depart with unequivocal authority in his station, having orchestrated a furious counterattack, a resourceful fightback, and now, a stalling knock that appears to have fenced Sri Lanka's lead in the series. His batting on day two is perhaps not the kind of Test cricket that inspires fans to pay close attention to every ball, but there was no mistaking Mathews' concentration against good Test bowling, despite the docile surface.
The 164 dot balls in his innings show that Mathews was content to refuse what Pakistan did not give freely. Good judgement of both the bowling and the surface were his biggest assets in his vigil, but having arrived in the Sri Lanka team with a taste for aggression, his self-restraint against Pakistan has been remarkable. Until he perished (perhaps suddenly innervated by the prospect of another trip to triple-figures), Mathews had barely touched anything that was not threatening the stumps, save the balls short enough for him to cut.
Grinding his runs out not only helped frustrate the opposition - an emotion manifested most conspicuously in Saeed Ajmal- but it was also a percentage play on a pitch that has shown signs that its deterioration is imminent. Sri Lanka have bossed the series, and did not need to shake its glacial pace. Pakistan must now attack on day three if they are to reel in Sri Lanka fast enough to level the score. And even if they achieve parity in the first innings, a fourth-innings chase to win the match is only likely on the fifth day, when Sri Lanka's spinners will pose significant menace.
Mathews has also inspired calmness in less-experienced batsmen at the other end in this series - another sign of his burgeoning leadership ability. He had put up vital stands with Shaminda Eranga and Dinesh Chandimal in Abu Dhabi, and in Sharjah, helped guide Dilruwan Perera to the highest ever score by a Sri Lanka debutant away from home.
"The wicket is still a little hard to score on, so Angie told me to stay at the crease and that the two of us should try to extend the team's total," Dilruwan said. "I'm disappointed to miss out on 100, especially because not many Sri Lankans have done it on debut. The pull shot I played to get out was the only time I played that shot to a fast bowler. But at the same time, I'm happy about my 95."
Few would have expected Sri Lanka to have earned such a dominant place in the series without a major contribution from the likes of Kumar Sangakkara and Rangana Herath, but players like Dilruwan, Kaushal Silva and the fast bowlers have made surprising leaps to assure fans the future is not as bleak as once imagined. Sri Lanka played their oldest ever Test XI against New Zealand in 2012, but 14 months hence, they appear to be regenerating at speed.
It helps that Pakistan are an opposition they enjoy playing against. In their 13 most recent encounters, Sri Lanka have only lost once, though only the future challenges may be a better barometer.
In this match, Sri Lanka have also benefited from some good fortune via the margin for umpires' call in the DRS system. Three 50-50 decisions went their way on day one, and two more came on Friday as Pakistan exhausted all their reviews. Had an equal share of the contentious decisions fallen Pakistan's way, Sri Lanka might not have managed even 300 in the first innings, particularly if Sangakkara's gloved catch had also not been overlooked and Mathews' return catch on 0 been snaffled.
If Sri Lanka can protect their lead or even go one better, they will leave the UAE satisfied not only with the win, but also with their youngsters who would have all been instrumental in achieving it.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here