Inexperienced Sri Lanka loosen chokehold again

Sri Lanka, full of pep when they had Pakistan at 13 for 2, softened their grip and deflated like a party balloon for two sessions. They were flying around the room making rude noises towards stumps. Sri Lanka had dominated this match since day two. They could even have been looking at a four-day finish. But, as has been the case everywhere from Sharjah, to Lord's, to the Basin Reserve in January, and Galle a mere two weeks ago, one complacent hour became two, and the opposition returned to the match, inch by inch at first, then in galumphing strides.

The mistakes were only minor, but this is their umpteenth airing in recent times. Angelo Mathews went for the throat briefly, but when Younis Khan and Shan Masood rebuffed him with a spate of boundaries, Sri Lanka eased off too quickly. You feel for Mathews sometimes. Aside from him, no one else in the side has played 25 Tests. There are batsmen in the side after long hiatuses, and bowlers nursing averages twice their age. This is a rag-tag motley crew of novices, and leading them to victory means not putting a foot wrong.

He is clearly missing the advice of Mahela Jayawardene, and the support of Kumar Sangakkara. For this match he is without Rangana Herath's control as well. Kaushal over Herath was the sensible move for this match, but fans, along with Mathews will be pondering the what-ifs. Kaushal's lines and lengths in the final session laid bare his inexperience. He went at 4.6 in his 20 overs.

Running the drinks throughout the day, Herath looked more at home in those bibs supporting players have to wear, than in his unaccessorised cricket kit. His words to an uninspired Mathews during each drinks break grew more voluminous as the afternoon wore on. With the benefit a little amateur lip-reading and imagination, we might surmise he said something like: "Do you wish you never dropped me now, you boring doofus? Wouldn't it be nice to have a spinner who consistently pitched the ball in the same time zone as the batsman?" Maybe this is using a little too much imagination. Herath's comments were probably more constructive - something like: "Would it be ok, if, just once in a while, you captained with more zest and creativity than a lamp post?"

The thing with Mathews for now, is that you can't really have the slamming batsman without the ka-blamming strategist. He is iron-willed and granite-hearted at the crease, letting little to faze him, much less shake him from his batting plan. Those virtues can be liabilities when he is leading on the field. As on Monday, he has not reacted quickly to worsening situations. He's shown little capacity for innovation. Sri Lanka fans are left hoping that, along with pretty much everything else in this team, Mathews improves tactically over time. The worst of his detractors though, might be reminded that if it weren't for his second-innings ton, Sri Lanka might have already lost this match.

In the morning, he had made a raid for a 400 lead, showing disappointment as the lower order played 2015 Imran Khan like he was 1980s Imran Khan. Perhaps that frantic Pakistan chase in Sharjah last year played on his mind. Either way, Mathews seems like the kind of captain who needs a gigantic lead, an ace bowler, and for the army to be shooting mortars at the batsmen, to feel comfortable attacking without relent, for a long period of time.

On a pitch that has given the bowlers plenty all game, 376 should be more than enough to claim victory. It may still turn out that way, if Sri Lanka can gather themselves overnight, and set out with intent on Tuesday. Dinesh Chandimal, whose 67 alongside Mathews seemed to have put Sri Lanka in an outstanding position, said the team would even have settled for far fewer runs.

"We actually thought we had enough," Chandimal said. "At the start, we thought if we could put 300 on the board, we could win the match. But after my partnership with Angelo, we thought, 'No, we can go to 400'. That way we could completely lock them out of the match. Unfortunately we couldn't get to 400. But 376 is a great total, and what should be a winning total in the fourth innings. There's one more day to play, and we're hoping to get a couple of wickets in the morning and move towards victory."

There are 17 overs to play before the second new ball is available. With Pakistan so far ahead in the game now, though, Sri Lanka can't wait that long to make headway. "When the ball was hard, the seamers had something from the pitch," Chandimal said. "But after about 30 overs, there wasn't much for them. The seam movement disappeared. In the last hour and a half, we saw quite a bit of turn from Kaushal. I'm hoping Kaushal will get us two or three wickets before the new ball is available."

Pakistan will look to their epic chase in Sharjah for their encouragement. Sri Lanka, to Pakistan's collapse in Galle in 2009 for theirs. Both series between these teams last year produced at least one sublime finish. Maybe it will be so again.