The only series in recent memory when Pakistan negated the threat of Rangana Herath effectively was in 2015 when the Sri Lanka left-arm spinner managed only two wickets in two home Tests, a success which came about after a specific plan against the bowler. In the wake of Pakistan's defeat in Abu Dhabi, however, Azhar Ali admitted that conditions in the UAE and the relative inexperience in the batting line-up were also factors in the shock collapse against Herath, who took 6 for 43 in Sri Lanka's defence of 135.
"Well those were different conditions," Azhar told reporters on Wednesday. "Obviously we had plans against him but these are different conditions. This is a new team, so some of them were playing him for the first time. Still I have got out six [nine] times to him. He is a great bowler and we have played a lot against him. Sometimes, we dominate him and the other times he dominates us. This goes on, he is a great bowler and has not got 400 wickets without a reason. When you have a plan, then he too adjusts in a different manner and encounters that plan. We had a plan like we did in 2015 when he got fewer wickets, but unfortunately he did better than us [here]."
Herath became the first left-arm spinner to take 400 Test wickets, and finished with a match haul of eleven dismissals in Abu Dhabi. He also became the first bowler to take 100 wickets in the format against Pakistan and has also dismissed Azhar nine times in 12 Tests.
Pakistan's fifth-day collapse in Abu Dhabi also highlighted the side's vulnerability in a situation faced with a fourth-innings chase. Azhar admitted the team had the ability to chase down 136 against Sri Lanka but also pointed to the fact that the batsmen should have taken more responsibility in helping Pakistan take a lead larger than the three runs they had managed. Azhar himself scored 85 in the first innings but managed only a duck in the second.
"Definitely we are disappointed, and this is not the first time," he said. "Teams stage comebacks, we did not have much to chase but it's not easy to bat on the last day. We had the ability to chase that target. Unfortunately we lost early wickets and could not recover, so there are lessons to be learnt which we will learn. Had one [batsman] played a big knock in the first innings, we would have got a bigger lead. Had we done that, things would not have been like this. So the biggest lesson is that when we have things under control we should utilise that to the maximum."
The Abu Dhabi Test also saw Azhar return to the No. 3 position for the first time since August 2016, after a prolific stint opening the batting for Pakistan. In 12 Tests since August last year, Azhar scored 1325 runs opening the batting, at an average of 63.09 with four hundreds and five fifties including a triple-hundred against West Indies in the UAE last year and an unbeaten 205 against Australia in Melbourne.
Azhar backed the team management's decision to play him at No.3, particularly as Pakistan now look to piece together a new middle-order core following the retirements of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan earlier this year.
"I think it was a team decision and I back it. When I went to open the innings, that was also team's requirement," he said. "This because two of our players who had been performing were not there, we had to change the combination. They need me at No. 3 to adjust the middle order."