Sri Lanka v Pakistan, 2nd Test, SSC, Colombo, 1st day June 30, 2012

Pressure off Hafeez as he finds form

The Pakistan opener hasn't been at his best with the bat all series, but was back in the runs and in sight of a double century at the SSC

In the days to come, the opening day might be unfortunately remembered more for Mahela Jayawardene's benevolence at the toss, rather than Mohammad Hafeez's century. Opting to bowl first on a traditionally batsman friendly pitch raised eyebrows, but given Pakistan's fragility at the top in Galle, there was the possibility of a top-order wobble. But quality opening pairs rarely fail for extended periods.

Whether Jayawardene underestimated Pakistan's ability to bounce back is a different issue. Hafeez and his top-order partners were desperate for runs. They salvaged their reputations in conditions that suited them and their commanding performance at the end of the day brought back memories of Gabba 2002, when Nasser Hussain put Australia in, and lived to regret it.

There was the danger that Hafeez would be swallowed by the self-doubt that has plagued him as a batsman in this tour. He arrived in Sri Lanka with the responsibility of leading a fresh Twenty20 side. His batting wasn't quite up to the mark, but two games were too short a period to pass judgments. His form didn't improve in the one-dayers either, with 57 runs - including two ducks - in five games. He was able to contribute as a bowler, but he was faltering in his primary role in the side as a top-order batsman. Then came Misbah-ul-Haq's ban. Hafeez was suddenly was saddled with the captaincy as a stopgap arrangement for the Galle Test. The timing of it couldn't have been worse. Here was a senior, struggling to spend time at the crease, now in charge of a team struggling to prove itself all tour.

He lasted a total of 74 balls in Galle, getting out lbw and caught in the slips. His technique, particularly against the moving ball, was awry. He said after the 209-run defeat that he had worked hard at the nets but form still deserted him. The option of dropping down the order wasn't even considered. He was experienced enough to fight his way back.

Hafeez is known to analyse his own performances and retreat into himself when things go wrong. Like Misbah, he too projects a calm exterior, but one can never comprehend the turmoil that may be going through his mind. Fortunately, Hafeez's place wasn't in doubt, giving him the security to bide his time at the crease and not worry about accelerating. His mantra was simple - keep it simple and stay at the crease.

The support cast played a vital role. Taufeeq Umar, in need of runs himself, eased Pakistan off the blocks with a breezy fifty. Hafeez, meanwhile, kept to the speed limit reserved for driveways, plodding along to 20 off 73 balls at lunch.

Azhar Ali positive approach was also significant. Though he has a reputation of being a stodgy player capable of wearing bowlers down with his patience and defence, Azhar was looking for runs from the beginning, using his feet against the spinners. He didn't let the pressure of Rangana Herath's left-arm spin get to him, sweeping against the turn early in his innings. He kept busy by pushing for quick singles, ensuring that neither of them nodded off. Having a positive batsman at the other end took a load off Hafeez's shoulders.

"Taufeeq was brilliant at the start as he put pressure on the bowlers and after lunch Azhar helped build a solid partnership," Hafeez said. "It was good for me because I too was able to spend time at the crease. In the earlier games I wasn't able to do that. I'm really happy that I was able to perform under pressure.

"I told myself not to play any big shots early on. After lunch, I decided to play some shots as I was quite settled and it worked for me."

Post lunch, Hafeez stepped on the gas, swatting the spinners and cutting Nuwan Kulasekara past point to bring up his fifty. His elegant square cuts, off the spinners and seamers, stood out. On 65, he had his first narrow escape, dropped at deepish mid-on after giving Suraj Randiv the charge. Following that let-off, he dropped his guard and focused on grafting. While in the 80s, he raced towards a century with three risk-free fours on either side of the wicket. He got to his century with a single behind square. He went down on his knee and performed the sajda. He looked up at the sky for a few seconds, the pressure of expectations released.

He had another escape, in the last over before tea, gloving a ball to the keeper down the leg side, saved by a no-ball call. He also survived a strong shout for caught behind off Herath shortly before stumps. "I didn't have much luck going my way through the tour, so today I needed that," Hafeez said.

Post tea, Hafeez took advantage of a deflated bowling attack - in mind and body - to beat his previous highest of 143, incidentally his last century. He charged the spinners, launching Randiv over wide long-on. He was the aggressor in a mammoth unbeaten stand of 256 with Azhar and ended the day within sight of a double-century. There was an overall neatness to his innings - edges were few, drives straight to the fielders found the middle of the bat as well.

How did he cope with the pressure on the lead-up to this Test? "My family, wife, well-wishers and team management gave me the confidence when I needed it," Hafeez said. "While I was struggling they reassured me that I will come out of this phase. When you are down and not performing well, Misbah always gives you strength."

Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo