Sri Lanka tread too far down the conservative route
A few days ago, in the Emirate just west of Sharjah, a group of cricket administrators unveiled a proposal that would put the Test-match future of Sri Lanka and Pakistan in serious doubt. On day four, in a series already ruled by attrition, the teams produced the least watchable cricket of the tour. The comatose third session, in which Sri Lanka progressed at 1.36 runs an over, was little more than a staring contest featuring 13 grown men. There are pharmaceutical ads that are more compelling.
The few hundred fans that had come to the stadium stared too, only their eyes had long since glazed over. If any new followers of the sport tuned in, they might wonder why Tests between these sides deserve saving.
Sri Lanka were almost certainly the more passive of the teams, and though the players will contend that abrasive battles are an inextricable part of Test cricket, they can hardly claim it is the type of play that will stir the flagging interest in the format at home. They will also hold that Sri Lanka's first away series win since 2000 is much better reward for their fans than risky, aggressive cricket. If the sport is reduced to its scorelines, then perhaps that is correct. But cricket has always been about the journey, not just the destination, as laid out by the two best Tests of 2013, in Auckland and Johannesburg, both of which ended in draws.
Before the Test, captain Angelo Mathews had said this: "We need to play positive cricket once again, because we will try to win it 2-0. We are certainly not going for a draw here, because it sends a negative message to the whole team."
To single Mathews out for hypocrisy here would be grossly unfair, primarily because press conferences with almost any athlete have become an exercise in professional pretense. Even the most dour batsman will speak of "being positive" - a ubiquitous cricketing phrase - because anything less conveys weakness. But the fact is, no one likes to lose. When you're ahead in the series, why bother with winning the match? Sri Lanka have been in control at the close of almost every day since the middle of the first Test, and the prospect of finishing the series on even terms might appear madness to those in the dressing room.
Moreover, an inexperienced Sri Lanka side have largely gained ground by playing conservatively and respecting the limits of their ability. The fast bowlers have not attempted magic balls, nor sought to blast oppositions out. The spinners have found safety in the quicker, flatter deliveries, hoping to build pressure with dot balls. In the Dubai Test that Sri Lanka won, they scored at less than three an over in both innings, effectively challenging Pakistan to change the tempo of the series, if they wish to level it.
But on Sunday, Sri Lanka discovered the perils of treading too far down the conservative route. An uncompromising focus on defence with the bat allowed Pakistan's bowlers the opportunity to settle happily into their work, even though the onus was on them to take quick wickets, having finished their first innings with an 87-run deficit and only five full sessions to play. Three of Sri Lanka's five dismissed batsmen fell offering defensive shots, having earned poor dividends for their time at the crease. Kaushal Silva and Dinesh Chandimal fell to very good balls, but that is hardly unexpected at Test level; if batsmen are to receive unplayable deliveries, it would seem wise to score off the balls that are not so menacing.
Mahela Jayawardene stalled for 15 deliveries on 46, allowing Saeed Ajmal to put men around the bat, as he constructed what was among his most threatening spells in the series. Flat pitches in India recently prompted MS Dhoni to compare bowlers to bowling machines, but to Ajmal, Jayawardene and Mathews - whose 38-run stand spanned 176 deliveries - might have seemed the batting equivalent. Predictably, he got one to turn a little more than Jayawardene anticipated, and ensured Pakistan's slim hopes of winning the Test survived into the fifth day.
It is excusable, perhaps even commendable, that Sri Lanka have taken stock of their personnel and embraced conservatism in the series, largely to good effect. Their gains in the series may even suggest it is a strategy that suits them until key men develop the ability to play attacking, intimidating cricket. But in defending to the point of alienating fans, they have also weakened their grip on the match.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here