It did not have the wow-factor of last Sunday's record run fest at the Wanderers in South Africa, but this low-scoring dogfight at Premadasa was comparably absorbing, a fascinating, tense and closely-fought contest. Sri Lanka scrapped hard after a dreadful batting display, their bowlers and fielders once again showing great heart as Pakistan teetered on the brink midway through their run chase, but in the end Abdul Razzaq clinched victory with an innings of cool-headed self-denial.
When Pakistan slipped to 47 for 5, Sri Lanka had taken the initiative for the first time in the match. The bowlers were bowling wicket-to-wicket, exploiting an under-prepared pitch that was variable in pace and bounce, pressing Pakistan hard. Mahela Jayawardene, forced to live off his wits in his first major test as Sri Lanka captain, was also cleverly applying pressure with careful juggling of his bowlers backed up with positive and innovative field settings. The heat was on and the cricket provided gripping entertainment.
Razzaq arrived at the crease with the clearest of gameplans: all good balls were solidly blocked and anything loose was pushed for a single or, very occasionally, stroked into the deep for a two. Murali tossed the ball up temptingly with inviting gaps in the off side, but Razzaq stuck steadfastly to his dour method. At the other end, Mohammad Yousuf was also batting doggedly. The innings slipped into the doldrums for a while as the pair patiently acclimatised themselves to the tricky conditions before Pakistan inched home. Finally, having held himself back for nearly two hours, crawling to 27 from 98 balls, Razzak indulged himself with some lavish strokeplay, finishing off the game with three consecutive boundaries.
In truth, Pakistan should have won with far greater ease after Sri Lanka had scored just 130. But Razzaq's colleagues, especially the openers refused to adapt their approach to the peculiar pitch conditions: Shahid Afridi, promoted back up the order, threw his wicket away in a moment of lunacy as he tried to flat-bat a good-length delivery straight over the top - the kind of shot possible at the Wanderers last week but sheer suicide on this Khetterama sandpit. Salman Butt, meanwhile, flashed wastefully outside his off stump just before lunch, providing Sri Lanka hope.
Sri Lanka's batting, badly missing Marvan Atapattu and Sanath Jayasuriya, had sacrificed the initiative early against the new ball after being put into bat. The gamble with Chamara Kapugedera as an opener, ahead of Jehan Mubarak who had been called up as Jayasuriya's replacement, failed fast and then Kumar Sangakkara was the victim of his second atrocious lbw decision in as many weeks, the ball pitching outside leg and probably also going over the top. When Jayawardene pushed at an outswinger and was caught behind, Sri Lanka were 16 for 3 and the writing was on the wall.
Fortunately for Sri Lanka Tillakaratne Dilshan knuckled down and showed further evidence of his growing maturity and stronger temperament. While his talent is obvious, his ability to withstand pressure has been questioned over the years. When England toured in 2001 he was considered the soft underbelly of the middle order and was targeted by Nasser Hussain's bully boys. He sparkled during a warm-up game but then batted like a novice in the Tests. However, five years on, having finally been given an extended run, he is starting to perform when the team needs him most, like today. His 48 not from 75 balls was, in the context of both Sri Lanka's dire predicament and the difficult pitch, a brilliant innings.
Dilshan, though, must thank Inzamam-ul-Haq for helping him along with his bizarrely defensive leadership after Sri Lanka had collapsed into a sorry heap, 56 for 7 with the tail exposed. But rather than rush in for the kill, Inzamam eased the pressure as he turned to his slow bowling part-timers, Shoaib Malik and Afridi, who bowled to well-spread fields. Nuwan Kulasekera and Lasith Malinga were allowed to keep Dilshan good company, slowly accumulating singles and averting a humiliation. In the end, after the fight with the ball that ensued, it meant that Sri Lanka, instead of being downbeat and despondent, escaped the match with sufficient positives to encourage them for the final game on Wednesday. Inzamam might have missed a prime opportunity to claim the psychological high ground.