Benign pitch, bloodyminded batsmen ruin SL gamble
Pakistan 334 for 1 (Hafeez 172*, Ali 92*, Taufeeq 65) v Sri Lanka
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Sri Lanka ventured, but didn't gain. When they won the toss, they could have easily strapped their pads on and added to their already impressive records on the SSC sleeping beauty. However, they chose to try to exploit whatever juice there might have been in the first session and to put pressure on a batting line-up that has proved brittle on this tour. Milking rocks has proved easier.
There was neither juice in the pitch nor brittleness in the visitors' batting as Pakistan went on to score 300 in the first innings of a Test for the first time since January 2007. Mohammad Hafeez quietly played himself back into form before hurtling along to his personal best, also his first score of more than 37 on this tour. Taufeeq Umar allowed Hafeez the gift of inconspicuousness as he plundered 65 out of the 78-run opening stand. Hafeez then shared the booty with Azhar Ali, letting him get his eye in after the golden duck in Galle, as he himself looted 85 off 98 in the middle session. He was 20 off 73 at lunch.
As for the early juice, a grand total of one ball beat the bat in the first session, and another edge fell well short of second slip. It was always going to be a risk putting a side in, and Mahela Jayawardene might even be hauled over the coals for that, but he genuinely felt this was the only way to push for a result on his notoriously lifeless home pitch. Sri Lanka did the same against Australia last year, but back then they were behind in the series.
Be that as the pitch may, the importance of this effort for Pakistan can't be overstated. Sri Lanka's decision to field first on a batting beauty despite a lead they could sit on says a lot about the regard they held the visiting batsmen in. Pakistan needed a solid response. And solidly they began, surprisingly against Nuwan Kulasekara and Angelo Mathews, and not the quicker Nuwan Pradeep.
Pradeep's extra pace, when introduced in the sixth over, meant the keeper could stand back but also that the batsmen could drive him through the line. Hafeez didn't bring the car keys in the first session, but Taufeeq repeatedly drove on the up. It was no coincidence that the openers came good for Pakistan. They have enjoyed, and deserved, rare faith for a Pakistan opening pairing. This is the 17th straight Test they are opening in, easily a Pakistan record. They have responded with five century stands, another record for Pakistan, and today's was their sixth half-century association.
Spin in the first hour was an expected sight, but Suraj Randiv created little impression. When Mathews came back, Taufeeq greeted him with three fours in the 18th over. The third of those brought up the half-century, out of a team score of 62. Taufeeq grew more adventurous, hit three more quick fours before edging a short delivery from Mathews, which was smartly taken by Prasanna Jayawardene when standing up to the stumps. A gift more than reward.
Hafeez, 12 off 55 then, and Ali saw off the next 24 minutes without incident. It is likely Hafeez didn't have a proper lunch because he feasted on the bowling after the break. It was as if he had spent the 40 minutes successfully looking for car keys. For when he came back he repeatedly charged down to the spinners, lapped them fine, and forced them to bowl short. And when they did pitch short, Hafeez was quick to smash them square. Even Pakistan's nemesis Rangana Herath didn't pose a threat.
Hafeez brought up the half-century with a punch wide of point, and you could almost hear a sigh of relief. Ali, 13 off 35 then, and wearing a cap as opposed to Hafeez's helmet, steadily picked up pace without doing anything that would draw attention to him. You want such innings once in a while.
Hafeez didn't mind the attention as he continuing lofting, lapping and punching unchecked. He miscued once, but Randiv saw that slice clear Kulasekara who ran back from mid-on. Hafeez was 65 then. In due time he brought up his century with a dink around the corner, and went down for the sajda.
Circumstances continued to tease Sri Lanka; in the last over before tea, Hafeez edged down the leg side only for replays to show Mathews had over-stepped. Salt met wound when Hafeez pulled Mathews for four in the same over, Hafeez's 12th boundary of the session. Azhar, on the other hand, scored so slyly even the scorers at the ground missed one of his singles, and informed him of his fifty when he had reached 51.
The next challenge for the batsmen would be the new ball, and the two added 94 more after tea in the 23 overs before the event. Hafeez reached his first 150, and Ali was 20 short of a third century. Pakistan approached the new ball with caution, which might have slowed down the arrival of landmarks. Hafeez managed the third-highest score for a Pakistan batsman on the first day, Ali finished eight short of the century, but the two broke the record for the highest second-wicket partnership against Sri Lanka.
The DRS debate made its obligatory reference when Simon Taufel seemed to have missed a thin edge from Hafeez in the 88th over, but everyone will agree that even the most advanced technology might struggle to bring life to the SSC track.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo