Yousuf century gives Pakistan lead
Mohammad Yousuf marked his return to official cricket with his first century in Sri Lanka, a serene innings that lifted Pakistan from a precarious 80 for 4, and put them two runs ahead of Sri Lanka's total by the time he finally got out. Consequently Pakistan were in considerable control of a match that see-sawed for the first four sessions, with neither team claiming clear ascendance.
Yousuf got solid support from Misbah-ul-Haq and Shoaib Malik, with whom he added 139 and 75 respectively. Those partnerships were the first time in the match that batsmen played with assurance for long periods. To be fair to Sri Lanka, the pitch had eased a bit from yesterday, but the wicketless Ajantha Mendis proved to be a crucial factor on the second day.
As they are so far reputed to, Pakistan negotiated Mendis well, reading him early on most occasions and taking 89 runs from his 25 overs, which meant Mendis couldn't create enough pressure with scoreless periods.
It wasn't always that easy, though. When Yousuf came in to bat, Pakistan had just lost nightwatchman Abdur Rauf for a nightwatchman-like 31, and were about to lose captain Younis Khan, who had never looked comfortable, soon.
Nevertheless the overnight batsmen had managed to frustrate Sri Lanka for one hour. Playing and missing, prodding and nudging, they survived and put together a 50-run partnership, 31 of which Rauf contributed. Their wickets were the last bit of joy Sri Lanka were to have in a long time.
Both Yousuf and Misbah calmly blunted the attack. Yousuf took the lead in scoring runs, although Misbah looked the more solid partner. Yousuf had three shouts against him early in the innings, but none of them looked decidedly out. Thilan Thushara troubled him with the inwards movement, but he countered it by getting outside the line of the off. A couple of flashy shots there got Yousuf boundaries too.
Neither of the batsmen looked hurried, they felt no need to hit the bowlers off the rhythm. Instead they played normal cricketing shots, kept rotating the strike, and it was always going to be tough for the bowlers in hot and humid conditions.
Which is what made Mendis' role even more crucial. He didn't look like he had settled into any sort of rhythm, also bowling four no-balls. He was hit for back-to-back boundaries to usher in Yousuf's fifty. By then Misbah had reached just 26 off 83. A crucial moment followed when Rangana Herath finally came on to bowl in the 48th over of the innings. In his second over, a bat-pad escaped the umpire's eye, and Yousuf was let off on 57. Quite similar to how Tharanga Paranavitana got a life when on 60, but it was clear as to which team accepted the gift better.
Misbah, who had looked the most comfortable batsman on this pitch, was slow nonetheless. Post a 38-minute rain break in the middle session, though, he targeted Herath, lofting him twice to cow corner. A swivel pull off the same bowler brought Misbah his half-century, but Herath got his aggressor seven minutes before tea, making sure Pakistan still had some way to go before they could impose themselves.
Yousuf, though, looked set to take Pakistan there, getting his second fifty as calmly as he got his first. The late-cuts, the drives, the pulls were all back. So was the sajda, when he cut Mendis past cover in the 74th over to get to his century. Yousuf might have been on his knees then, metaphorically, though, the bowlers would have felt the same.
Sangakkara took the new ball as soon as it became due, and two overs later Yousuf get out in the only matter that seemed possible, especially if umpires missed the rare edge. Caught in two minds, whether to cover his stumps, or whether to run when he had dabbed a Nuwan Kulasekara delivery, he started off too late and was beaten by a direct-hit from Tillakaratne Dilshan.
Kulasekara had been the pick of the bowlers, and with the new ball he got his movement back. A set Malik was beaten by one that pitched on middle and off, and moved away just enough to beat the bat but not enough to miss the off stump. Sri Lanka were clawing their way back again, and Pakistan needed a sizeable lead, considering they were to bat last.
Akmal rose to the occasion, playing some gorgeous cover-drives in his 35-ball 31. Despite Umar Gul'as falling in a similar fashion as Malik to the same bowler, Akmal was fast taking the game away from Sri Lanka. But there was another final twist left, in the penultimate over of the day: Mathews' fast, flat, direct-hit from fine leg to run Akmal out. Pakistan's last four added 48, the corresponding figure for Sri Lanka was 98.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo