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July 22, 2009
At 67 for 4, with both Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf back in the pavilion, Pakistan were in danger of subsiding to another defeat, but two century partnerships utterly transformed the game in the final two sessions on the third day. The common factor was Shoaib Malik, the former captain, who put recent indifferent form behind him with a beautifully paced hundred. Misbah-ul-Haq and Kamran Akmal were perfect foils, scoring half-centuries, and by stumps, the Pakistan lead had swelled to 366.
Sri Lanka had started the final session promisingly, with the runs drying up and Misbah perishing to an indiscreet shot. Having given Angelo Mathews the charge, he was surprised by the extra bounce and the thin edge was easily taken by Kumar Sangakkara. With the lead then at 252 and the second new ball looming, it was Sri Lanka's big chance to wrest back the initiative. Instead, Malik and Akmal took it away with some wonderfully positive batting, as a tiring attack started to leak runs.
Throughout the series, Sri Lanka had sparked collapses with the second new ball, but after tea at the SSC, there was only a torrent of runs. Akmal set the tone with a lovely drive and a powerful pull off Nuwan Kulasekara, and Malik joined in with booming drives through midwicket and cover off Thilan Thushara. When Chaminda Vaas came on for perhaps his final spell in international cricket, Akmal responded with a mighty heave over long-off, and Sri Lanka's woes were compounded when Sangakkara muffed a stumping chance off Rangana Herath when Malik was on 91.
Having breathed a sigh of relief, Malik didn't look back. A four and a six down the ground off Herath took him to his hundred from just 178 balls, and when Akmal brought up his half-century moments later, there was plenty for the dressing room to smile about.
The game had turned after lunch though, with Malik and Misbah consolidating against bowling that was steady without being unduly threatening. Both rotated the strike cleverly, and as the afternoon session drew to a close, the big strokes were unveiled. Herath, the pick of the bowlers, was pulled for four and then straight-driven for six, before a glance to fine leg off Thushara took Misbah to his third half-century in Tests. Malik, who had been the most positive of the batsmen in the first innings, also smashed Herath for a straight six, and when Misbah ended the session with a sweet on-drive off Angelo Mathews, Pakistan were right on top.
It was a far cry from the morning when a poor shot, an ordinary umpiring decision and a beautiful delivery boosted Sri Lankan hopes as Pakistan struggled to 86 for 4. They had started the day on 16 for 1, and there was to be no period of consolidation. Fawad Alam once again got a start, but the shot that cost him his wicket would hardly have thrilled his captain at the other end. The ball was short and at the body, and Fawad's attempt to work it wristily through midwicket merely lobbed back to Thushara off the top edge.
Mohammad Yousuf got going with a vicious slash behind point, and there was a lovely pull too from Younis Khan off Thushara, but by and large, runs were very hard to come by. The pair were finally starting to show signs of settling when Ian Gould intervened to send Younis on his way. The delivery from Kulasekara nipped back, but there was a hint of inside edge before it struck him very high on the pad.
The other half of Pakistan's experienced combo didn't make it to lunch either. Yousuf had struggled against Herath for much of the series, and he was undone by a magnificent delivery that pitched on his pads before leaping up and turning wickedly enough to take the edge. It was the sixth time that Herath had dismissed him, and it left Sri Lanka to contemplate a good morning's work. What followed wasn't quite according to the home script. Pakistan weren't going to complain though.
Given that no team has made more than 352 to win a Test in Sri Lanka, it is safe to say that Sri Lanka face a steep-mountain climb to achieve a series whitewash.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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