Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000
SA v IND (1)
ZIM v IRE (1)
IND v ENG (W) (1)
Asia Cup [U19] (4)
BBL 2023 (2)
Hazare Trophy (4)
It was almost exactly midway through this second Test, midway through the third innings, that Sri Lanka decisively pulled away from Pakistan. The 40th over had just been sent down by Yasir Shah. A poor one, with two loose balls put away by Dhananjaya de Silva, who was then in single digits; he would finish up in three figures. Five wickets down, two new batters at the crease and the skies darkening, Sri Lanka's lead looked particularly vulnerable.
Babar Azam had five spin options at his disposal, and Yasir's ordinary over was more an aberration than anything else; he'd been fairly solid in his preceding seven, and also removed Oshada Fernando early on. Agha Salman at the other end was operating with impressive consistency, landing the ball in the danger area more frequently than perhaps any other Pakistan bowler; one drifting, non-turning offbreak had taken Angelo Mathews' outside edge just before tea. Babar, however, opted for a change from that end.
He didn't bring on a fast bowler, or any of the other five spinners. Suddenly, there was the Pakistan captain, cap off and ball in hand, against two new batters who could barely believe their luck. Hindsight, foresight, and indeed sight at that moment could all tell you what was about to unfold and yet, seemingly oblivious to the magnitude of the moment, Babar began to bowl.
Across a wretched over, Sri Lanka were presented 10 runs on a golden platter, with the pressure release palpable across the Galle Fort ramparts. Babar took himself off, but the spark for that embryonic stand had been lit; de Silva and Karunaratne added 126 runs for the sixth wicket, stomping on any final hopes Pakistan had nurtured for another dramatic fourth-innings heist.
To say Sri Lanka's win represented justice being done would be something of an understatement; it is perhaps a travesty the hosts were ever made to sweat on a win in a contest they grasped by the scruff of the neck from the first session. Sri Lanka's approach to this second Test demonstrated a clarity of strategy wholly absent from Pakistan's game from day one, something Mohammad Nawaz admitted to when expressing frustration with Pakistan's first-innings bowling plans.
Sri Lanka had a multitude of spin options to choose from, too, but Karunaratne and Dhananjaya, who stood in for him for large swathes of the Test match, would not allow themselves to get lost in the maze of choice. Identifying Prabath Jayasuriya and Ramesh Mendis as their key spinners, Sri Lanka let them operate for extended lengths in each innings, backing them to stick to Plan A even while Pakistan built up frustrating partnerships. Today, as time ran out and rain and bad light both threatened to play spoilsport, Dhananjaya would not panic in the face of a seemingly impermeable Babar-Rizwan partnership that saw Pakistan sitting pretty at 176 for 2 in 53 overs.
Aside from seven overs from Dunith Wellalage, Ramesh and Jayasuriya were nigh on the only game in town. From the 50th onwards, no other bowler sent down a single over, the entire 8 for 85 collapse scripted by that most traditional of combinations: a left-arm orthodox spinner and a right-arm offspinner operating in tandem with the confidence of their captain and a patience that stemmed from trusting the process they had followed to the point of muscle memory.
"Patience" was a word Babar continued to return to in the post-match press conference. He ascribed a lack of it to his batters, and praised Jayasuriya for possessing it in spades. "Even if he gets hit for a boundary, he doesn't deviate from his length," Babar said.
Pakistan may not currently possess the spin bowling quality that always feels like it's bursting at the seams in Sri Lanka, but the part a captain plays in enabling them to put their best foot forward is difficult to overstate. According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-tracking figures, nearly half of Jayasuriya's deliveries on the final day - 52 off 114 - landed full on the stumps, rather than the safer shorter length wider outside off stump. He would concede a run-a-ball operating that line and length, but continued to work away on that tactic.
It was responsible for three of his four wickets on the day, including the match-defining ones of Babar and Rizwan. Babar's struggles against Jayasuriya in an otherwise excellent innings were also laid bare, with the batter not in control of 33.3% of all deliveries the left-armer bowled. Ramesh, too, was more productive when he operated along the fuller line that gave batters the opportunity to score runs, three of the four wickets he took falling that way.
The notion that Karunaratne, who has exactly as many wickets at Test level as Babar, would have even considered bringing himself on for an over for whatever reason bordered on risible, and Dhananjaya - a far more accomplished bowler than either - only sent down two overs in the final innings; yet Pakistan have often felt chained to their bowling choices rather than feeling liberated by them. The longest any two of their spinners operated in tandem all Test amounted to 17 overs, and never once did a Pakistan spinner lay siege to an end, as Sri Lanka so successfully did.
It might have to do with the quality of the personnel, but as a theme across his captaincy, Babar's ideas on management of spin resources have felt strategically light. In Karachi, Pakistan had asphyxiated the Australian middle order around tea on the first day, allowing just 16 runs in 13 overs. Instead of keeping that pressure on, the next 26 overs were bowled by the ineffectual Sajid Khan, Nauman Ali, Azhar Ali and, of course, Babar himself. Australia did not lose a single wicket during that spell, and went on to amass 556.
It's much easier when you have Jayasuriya and Ramesh in this kind of form at your disposal. But Karunaratne, and Sri Lanka, know exactly what to do with them, while Babar, and Pakistan, have much of their figuring out ahead of them.