Shafiq, Sarfraz reaffirm team transition
For a team like Pakistan which is going through a transition, nothing could have been better than two relatively young batsmen staging a terrific turnaround. Pakistan were reeling at 96 for 5 on the fourth day, but Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed partnered to convert a position of worry into a commanding one by the end of the day.
Pakistan's Test team has relied on the experienced hands of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, both at the end of their respective careers. The unorthodox 96 by Sarfraz and 131 by Shafiq were therefore a reaffirmation that Pakistan's transition was headed in the right direction.
Azhar Ali, who scored a double-century in April, has already established himself at No. 3 and now the middle order is stepping up as well.
Much hype surrounded Sarfraz's absence and then the batting position during the World Cup but in Tests, he is well settled at No. 7. He demonstrated a vast range of strokes, warming up initially with quick singles before unleashing smart stokes. He became the first Pakistan wicketkeeper to score a World Cup hundred, but missed out in Galle. Still, there is much to admire about his impeccable ability to attack.
"He (Sarfraz) and I had been playing together for the last many years," Shafiq talked about his partnership with Sarfraz. "We play in the same club, department, live nearby and even practice together which actually helped us to play in a good combination. I understand his mind and he understands my style, so it works both ways. I know exactly what he is trying to do and what I should be doing to get the momentum in our combination.
"When I came in, the situation was not good, but I had a belief in me that I could do it. What I had to do was to be patient with my innings. The way Sarfaraz played, he actually took away the pressure off me and let me play according to my comfort. He scored quick runs and let me play my own way and if we manage to win this match, this will be my best innings so far."
Over the last one year, Shafiq, thought to be the most technically correct batsman in Pakistan, has played many innings under pressure and has thrived in the situations. He built his innings with control regardless of the breezy hand being played by Sarafraz from the other end.
"With the loss of Younis and Misbah I knew I had to be patient and the biggest responsibility was to hold the tail together and spend as much time as I can as time was the one thing I had no issue," Shafiq said. "Because after my fifty I knew I can convert my half-century into hundred as well so I stuck with the plan and played my part."
It was hard to find a flaw in his innings as he went on constructing his century with a lot of maturity. The innings that lasted 376 minutes included 65 singles, 17 twos, 4 threes and five fours. Apart from that, his 139-run sixth-wicket stand with Sarfraz, he stretched the Pakistan total by another 182 runs along with the tail, most notable being the 101-run stand with Zulfiqar Babar.
"Since our last tour here wasn't that good, so we had planned many things," Shafiq said. "Some sessions might have slipped away from us but we want to take the game at the end. We might have lost our top order but idea was to hold the tail as much as I can. I knew our tail can bat out if needed and it worked. We didn't panic and executed our plan till the end."
After taking lead and removing Kumar Sangakkara in the final hour of the day, Pakistan were in a good position to press for a win. Their bowlers had already created ample opportunities before signing off the day.
"It's still possible to get this game in our way as we are in a very good position," Shafiq said. "The idea was to take at least two or three wickets today. We will come fresh to take them out the next day. We have already taken Sangakkara which is a huge plus for us and also their in-form batsman Silva, so we are very much in the game. "
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @kalson