Samaraweera and Sangakkara make it Sri Lanka's day
A serene 204-run partnership between Kumar Sangakkara and Thilan Samaraweera allowed Sri Lanka to soak up the pressure of three early wickets and reach a comfortable position by the end of the opening day at Lahore. It might have been a different story had Faisal Iqbal held on to a chance offered by Sangakkara when he was 55.
Sangakkara fell just before the close, but Sri Lanka would be satisfied with the day's effort after being put in to bat on a pitch with uneven grass cover. The surface was expected to assist the fast bowlers initially but there were enough dry areas to keep the spinners interested as the match progresses.
The way the pair reached their hundreds summed up their attitude. Sangakkara got there with a push along the ground to the off side to bring up the landmark. Samaraweera, who was on 40 when Sangakkara was 75, made it to three figures first with an audacious swing over midwicket on a bent knee. On most other days, and certainly a couple of years ago, it would have been the other way round. But Sangakkara knew he was the main batsman today after the exit of Mahela Jayawardene and he dropped anchor in a risk-free innings.
Samaraweera is fully enjoying his second stint at international cricket. Till the end of 2007, he lived up to his nickname Mr Glue, accumulating runs at a low strike-rate in the 40s. The change to a busy batsman came after he was left out and began to work under the guidance of Sri Lanka A coach Chandika Hathurasinghe. The bat grip was altered to allow him to score more freely; importantly, he sported a new attitude. In the last 12 months he has averaged over 90 and at a strike-rate close to 60. He still doesn't turn heads; you won't catch his name in a banner or hear his name shouted by the crowd even in Sri Lanka. But he is fast proving to one of the mainstays in the middle order.
Today again he proved his value to the team and didn't waste a run-scoring opportunity. He took special liking to Danish Kaneria, who was guilty of losing concentration once again and bowled several four-balls. Samaraweera used the drive and cut profitably when Kaneria erred in his length and picked up 45 runs off the bowler. There were three moments which showcased his confidence. Kaneria bowled a top spinner on the off-stump and Samaraweera picked it perfectly, arching back to late-cut it past backward point. The second shot was a flick against the turn. The third occasion was not a shot but what he did after the stroke. On 129, he played an extravagant cover drive and edged it past the diving slip fielder. The old Samaraweera would have perhaps practised leaving the ball. Not the new version. He shadow practised the cover drive again.
Apart from that solitary let off, when he stabbed Shoaib Malik to silly point, Sangakkara too was in no trouble. His typical traits - precise footwork, patience, and the temperament to punish loose balls - were on display as he continued to chip away calmly. When Kaneria overpitched, he cover drove him for boundaries and when Yasir Arafat, who bowled full for the majority of his spells, shortened his length, Sangakkara collected more fours with the cut. In between, he ran singles with urgency. He fell to Arafat, nicking an intended defensive poke.
Pakistan held the advantage till the duo decided to camp in for 55 overs. "The pitch looks nice for batting but there will be one hour of moisture. We want to make use of it," Younis said at the toss. There wasn't any dramatic movement in the first hour but Pakistan took two wickets because of rash shots from the batsmen. Gul mixed his short-of-a-length cutters with full deliveries, trying to trap the left-hand batsmen in front, and also sent down the odd bouncer. Mohammad Talha, the debutant who replaced Sohail Khan, was unspectacular but steady. As in the first Test, Yasir Arafat kept up the pressure by bowling full and moving the ball late.
Pakistan's bowlers bowled to the Sri Lankan openers' strengths and induced mistakes. Malinda Warnapura fell due to his penchant for driving. The ball from Gul was not full enough to drive but Warnapura went for his favourite shot, only to edge it low to first slip. Tharanga Paranavitana, who scored crisp boundaries with the cut, fell cutting hard to point where Malik held on to a blinder. The fielding remained smart through out but unfortunately, for Pakistan, Faisal dropped the crucial catch, a regulation chance, in the second session. Sri Lanka have already made Pakistan pay but by taking Sangakkara's wicket late in the day, Pakistan have at least ensured that Sri Lanka haven't run away with the game. Both teams will start the second day with that lovely cricketing cliché of the first session being most crucial.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo