Andrew Fidel Fernando
Test matches (3): Sri Lanka 1, Pakistan 2 One-day internationals (5): Sri Lanka 2, Pakistan 3 Twenty20 internationals (2); Sri Lanka 0, Pakistan 2
As the teams convened for their seventh Test series in little more than six years, Pakistan considered how to handle a familiar problem: Sri Lanka's spinners, especially their slow left-armer Rangana Herath, who had taken 88 wickets against them in 17 matches. On the eve of the First Test, Misbah-ul- Haq's assertion that his side had worked out "an answer for Herath" was greeted with mild scepticism: for years, visiting captains had claimed to have watched enough footage, pored over enough stats, or hired enough witch doctors, to neutralise him. And, for years, Herath would finish the series picking his teeth with the bones of his opponents, legs crossed, in a hammock.
But, as the series opener at Galle wound into its later stages, Pakistan's batsmen were slinking down the track to drive, or hanging back in the crease to sweep. Herath, who had long delayed surgery on both knees, seemed to be pivoting more gingerly than usual in his delivery stride, and extracted less bite out of a pitch that had historically been kind to him. It was here, and in the second innings in Colombo, where Pakistan laid the foundations for their record-breaking victory at Pallekele that gave them the series 2-1. Herath took just one wicket in each of the first two Tests, and was left out of the Third. Angelo Mathews discovered that, even if he could do without Kumar Sangakkara (who missed the decider as part of his retirement plan) and Mahela Jayawardene, he would struggle to live without Herath.
In the event, Pakistan's own slow men outshone Sri Lanka's, particularly Yasir Shah, the leg-spinner with the melted-velvet action and seemingly laser- guided control. He appeared to know when a batsman would venture down the track, and pulled his length back or slipped in a quicker one. Yasir provoked three stumpings in the third innings in Galle; and, on the first day at Pallekele, two men perished trying to lift him over mid-off or mid-on.
So complete was his hold that, even when the tracks offered meagre turn, the batsmen committed to more wrong lines than a karaoke drunk. He took 24 wickets in the three Tests, behind only Shane Warne's 26 in 2003-04 among visiting bowlers in Sri Lanka. The hosts didn't prosper until Yasir tired on the third day at Pallekele - and that might not have happened had he not already sent down almost 150 overs in the series, thanks in part to Wahab Riaz's hand injury on the first day of the Second Test. Sri Lanka's top wicket-taker, unusually, was a seamer - Dammika Prasad, with 14. Both top orders proved fragile, one reason why all three Tests ended in positive results.
The groundsmen also deserved praise. Even Galle humoured the seamers early on, before descending into its usual cantankerous spinning mood. The P. Sara Oval did not discriminate, providing bounce and movement for all; and both teams strapped three seamers to the plough for the Pallekele decider. Mathews felt the surface had flattened a bit by the time Shan Masood and Younis Khan mastered his attack, but the pitch took seam and spin throughout.
Pakistan completed a rare clean sweep by winning the one-day and Twenty20 series. Their batting gave them the upper hand in the 50-over games, the top order dominating an attack led by the fading Lasith Malinga. Sri Lanka's two victories were built on Kusal Perera's aggression. The T20s were almost a foregone conclusion, as Sri Lanka tried out several youngsters in the hope of uncovering some rough diamonds for the World Twenty20 in 2016.
All the matches - particularly the Tests - were played in good spirit, and many will remember Younis Khan's sublime 171 to complete Pakistan's monumental run-chase at Pallekele. Not long after he took off his pads, he was sitting in the dug-out with Kaushal Silva, Sri Lanka's opener, who was lapping up wisdom at the feet of the old man. But the tour was defined by the contributions of a spinner. And it was Yasir Shah who was left picking his teeth with the bones of his opponents, legs crossed, in a hammock.
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