Pakistan wrest back initiative with all-round show
Fawad Alam, Umar Gul and Saeed Ajmal fashioned an extraordinary turnaround on the second day at the P Sara Oval, with Pakistan dominating as completely as they had been dominated on the opening day. Led by superb spells from Gul and an outstanding century on debut from Fawad, Pakistan recovered from a disastrous first innings, limited their deficit to 150, and, by the end of the day two, had wiped off the arrears and moved ahead, losing only one wicket in the process.
When the day began, Sri Lanka were so far ahead it seemed almost inevitable they would rectify their record of never having won a home series against Pakistan. However, so thoroughly did Pakistan control all three sessions that Sri Lanka will have uncomfortable thoughts about chasing a stiff fourth-innings target on a wearing pitch. So far Pakistan had set all the wrong records in this series, but they got it right here: Fawad's tenacious yet fluent effort made him the 10th Pakistan batsman to score a century on debut, but the first to do so overseas. Thanks to that effort and the amazing bowling display, Pakistan can dream about chasing another record: only once have they won a Test after conceding a larger first-innings deficit - against New Zealand in Wellington in 2003, when they trailed by 170 but eventually won by seven wickets.
There were question marks being raised about Pakistan's commitment after there capitulation in the series so far, but as is their wont, they hit back just when their chances had been written off. The pitch remained a pretty good one for batting, though the bounce had diminished, but Pakistan relied on lethal spells of reverse swing, aided by steady spin and an inspirational bit of fielding, to launch an astonishing revival, and then continued it with an utterly disciplined and purposeful batting display.
The morning session belonged to Gul. He was completely lacklustre in Galle, but here was back near his best, reverting to his original action instead of trying to hide the ball with both hands. He generated late swing, bowled at a brisk pace, and maintained excellent control over length and line. He also bowled the ball that announced Pakistan's comeback, slipping in a quick delivery from round the wicket that crashed through Kumar Sangakkara's defences. Sangakkara had progressed serenely to 87 and looked good for many more, but that delivery was an emphatic declaration of the fact that Pakistan were back in business. That's exactly how it turned out, as Sri Lanka lost five wickets after that for just 52.
Gul received plenty of support from Ajmal, who bowled unchanged through the day and finished with deserving figures of 4 for 87. The pitch didn't offer much, but Ajmal maintained excellent control, seldom giving the batsmen easy scoring opportunities. He also had some help from umpire Daryl Harper, who adjudged Tillakaratne Dilshan caught behind though ball made no contact with bat.
It was a day when almost everything went right for Pakistan, with even the fielding getting better. The day started with a superb direct throw from Mohammad Aamer that found Thilan Samaraweera short of his crease. And when Gul returned for a second spell before lunch, Sri Lanka's misery exacerbated, as he struck twice in successive balls. Nuwan Kulasekara drove hard to slip, while Rangana Herath was caught-and-bowled as he tried to check a drive, thus improving Gul's morning figures to 3 for 15 from eight overs.
Angelo Mathews offered some resistance after being reprieved in the slips on 4, but that was hardly enough to stop the rampaging Pakistanis. With the deficit controlled to manageable proportions, their batsmen then set about making further inroads into Sri Lanka's hold on the game.
Khurram Manzoor and Fawad did that by adding 85 for the first wicket, looking untroubled at most times on a pitch that had lost most of its pace. Kulasekara, the first-innings destroyer, didn't get much swing, while the lack of pace meant both batsmen had enough time to adjust their strokes.
Fawad's tendency to shuffle had been his downfall in the first innings, and while he continued to use that technique in the second innings, he was quick enough to work the ball on the leg side every time the bowlers targeted his pads. The most impressive aspect of his batting, though, was his temperament. He was assured in defence, never looked flustered or bogged down by the huge deficit, and worked the ball away impressively against both pace and spin. Nothing demonstrated his temperament better than the way he tackled the 90s - on 92, he stepped back and pulled Rangana Herath high over midwicket for six; then he stepped back and worked the ball behind point for a couple of runs to get to his century.
It contained only six fours and a six, but yet came off just 151 balls, indicating just how well he worked the ball around. His staple run-scoring was the arc between backward point and mid-off, as he drove the ball fluently off both front and back foot, picking the gaps and ensuring that there were never long scoreless periods.
Younis had a close shave for lbw when on 4 - replays showed the ball had hit pad before hitting bat - but he slowly got into his groove, timing the ball sweetly down the ground and giving the bowlers no chance. By the time the last ball of the day was bowled, the Sri Lankans were more than ready to walk off, and the hopes of a series win was suddenly much farther away than it had been eight hours earlier.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo