One of the biggest challenges for a Test specialist is the fact that he gets only a few chances to prove himself when his form plummets. The proliferation of limited-overs contests and Twenty20 leagues has shrunk the Test calendar in certain countries and, when under pressure, the lengthy periods between Test series can be agonising for these players. Many hours are spent in the nets, rectifying specific technical deficiencies. There's always the itching need to go out there and score.
Tharanga Paranavitana and Thilan Samaraweera, both such players, sometimes find themselves in make-or-break scenarios, where their place in the side comes under threat after just a couple of low scores. Both faltered with ducks on the best batting track of the series at the SSC. The Pallekele Test was one last chance to end the season with confidence, before the wait begins for Sri Lanka's next Test series in November.
Paranavitana has played 30 Tests but no one-dayers and Twenty20s. He has been marked out as a specialist Test opener to partner Tillakaratne Dilshan, and preferred over Upul Tharanga. The other batsman with Test experience challenging him for that position is Lahiru Thirimanne, but he wasn't named in the squad. The performances of Dimuth Karunaratne with the A squad in South Africa would also have been at the back of his mind. Paranavitana's last fifty came in Sharjah against Pakistan last year, but in his next four games, his highest was 32. Fortunately for him, he had the backing of his captain Mahela Jayawardene, who said that it was important to be patient with him.
His technique was always going to be tested in the seaming conditions in Pallekele. Junaid Khan was a handful with the new ball on the opening day, getting rid of Kumar Sangakkara for a duck, before Mohammad Sami trapped Jayawardene lbw, leaving the hosts in a slightly delicate position at 44 for 3. And that only increased the pressure on Samaraweera and Paranavitana.
The rain that washed out the second day only spiced up the pitch further, before the batsmen took guard on the third. It was an edgy beginning for Paranavitana, who was circumspect with his foot movements and his off stump. Umar Gul and Junaid tried to exploit that weakness by teasing him around the off stump line, and all it needed was an error of judgment from the batsman to produce a wicket. Paranavitana was always a few inches away from that edge. One delivery from Gul nipped back in, ballooned off the back of his bat and cleared the slips. He took his eyes off a short ball by Sami and was struck on the peak of the helmet. He didn't flinch after that blow. He cut out extravagant shots off the short balls, preferring to duck under them.
He seemed more comfortable with the fuller deliveries, getting forward and behind the line to drive. He started the day with a square drive past point off Junaid, and later, off Gul, he caressed one past cover, relying purely on timing. Samaraweera's presence at the other end was crucial, because Sri Lanka needed a solid partnership. It was to their credit that the pair saw off an extended morning session without losing a wicket. Samaraweera survived a few close shaves himself, but his positive batting against the seamers gave Sri Lanka the belief that it was possible to dictate terms in conditions stacked against the batsmen.
Paranavitana reached his fifty with a cut for four off Younis Khan, and his celebrations were modest. He seemed pleased to get a load off his shoulders, and it showed when he spoke after the day's play. "I made good starts in the first few games but couldn't capitalise on them. It's good to be back in form," Paranavitana said. "I was disappointed to miss out on a century. I am pleased to be able to score 75 on a pitch that wasn't the easiest for the batsmen."
He admitted that he was under pressure to keep his place, but a lot of it was exaggerated. "I did feel under pressure coming into this match," he said. "But I was under more pressure put on me by the media. It's common for any batsman to go through a lean period. But I know what I am capable of and glad that I managed to prove people wrong. I never doubted my capabilities."
Sri Lanka's batting was built around two stands, that of 143 between Samaraweera and Paranavitana and 84 between Thisara Perera and Nuwan Kulasekara. Though the latter helped stretch the lead to an imposing 111, the stand between Paranavitana and Samaraweera stood out for its resistance in the morning session, when the bowlers had the best of the conditions.