Legends of the fall
Something changes in the air when these two friendly teams come up against each other. Pakistan and Sri Lanka may not have a historical rivalry going, but for dramatic turns and collapses look no further. There have been three already in this series, Sri Lanka's losing seven wickets for 63 today being the latest, but those who follow these contests regularly will point to a long history of collapses, against the run of play - across formats.
Remember Singapore? Sanath Jayasuriya scored the fastest half-century in a chase of 216. By the time Jayasuriya fell for a 28-ball 76, the contest was all but over - only for them to lose the next nine wickets for 76 runs. What happened in Kandy three years ago? Sri Lanka sat pretty with a lead of 131 and then lost the whole team for a matter of 51. Pakistan provided their own version twice in this series, losing 18 wickets for 137 in less than two-and-a-half sessions.
Those who follow these contests will also tell us that Pakistan have often had the better of these collapses: Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis taking all ten to dismiss Sri Lanka for 71 in Kandy in 1994, Wasim going berserk at the SSC in 2000, reducing Sri Lanka in their second innings to 123 from 67 for 2, or the Sharjah tie in which Abdul Razzaq went berserk with his reverse-swing as Sri Lanka lost their last eight wickets for 23 in a chase of 197. Muttiah Muralitharan pulled one back for Sri Lanka in Peshawar in 1999-2000, sending Pakistan from 137 for 2 to 199.
Knowing the history Sri Lanka and Pakistan share it is likely a few more instances may have slipped under the radar, but the number of Test collapses alone is sizeable for the last 20 years or so. For some reason, batsmen find the momentum swings irresistible. For some reason, everything comes together for bowling sides at the same time. It could be a freak coincidence too, but the presence of good bowlers against tails could suggest a trend. The likes of Wasim and Waqar could run through tails in a hurry, and so can Murali and now Ajantha Mendis. Mendis is accurate, doesn't spin the ball much, and his fast legbreak has proven to be too good for lesser batsmen.
Pakistan, who were on their way to losing this series via those two cave-ins, needed to get back at Sri Lanka. And against all trends today, Umar Gul, still struggling for rhythm and bowling regular no-balls, suddenly started reversing the ball. Gul had had an ordinary series thus far, coming off that special World Twenty20.
Younis Khan had earlier told Cricinfo that Gul just needed time. "He hasn't had any time to rest. For four days we kept doing the victory march in Pakistan, and came here directly. He is a match-winner, he might just take some time but he will recover."
Recover Gul did, and just in time. And a comeback of Pakistani proportions started. In a sudden flow of momentum, just to facilitate Sri Lanka's collapse, smaller errors like dropped catches seemed to stop mattering - they just didn't cost much. Kumar Sangakkara, looking to accumulate, got a ripper that nipped in late to take the slight gap between bat and pad. Gul's accuracy returned and when Nuwan Kulasekara got a widish delivery, he threw his bat at it without getting in position. Ranganna Herath got a swinging yorker first up, which he managed to get under.
Saeed Ajmal, for his part, got into Test mode, slowing down his deliveries, flighting them as opposed to darting them in as in Galle, and creating doubt with his doosras. And when Pakistan start a day off with a direct-hit run-out, drama must be in the air. These are the same teams who were playing sleepathons in Pakistan earlier this year.
Perhaps one collapse in a Test had become boring, so they gave us two here. Who knows if a third one is around the corner? An even match, a pitch that will start to crumble, so yes, why not? We won't be surprised.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo