In a match that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Galle Test from last year, Pakistan and Sri Lanka switched fortunes, with the former conjuring the unlikeliest of triumphs – their first on Sri Lankan soil for nearly a decade. Pakistani spinners shared 15 wickets between them in the match; their Sri Lankan counterparts took 5 for 221 runs. This proved to be the crucial differential as Pakistan spun out the Lankans to take a crucial 1-0 lead to the second Test in Colombo, which would already have entered its second day by the time you read this.
The decisive difference between last year’s Test and this year was the defensiveness that Pakistan displayed at Galle in 2014 and lack thereof last week. The man who provided the attacking impetus was Sarfraz Ahmed, whose better-than-run-a-ball 96, with a blitzing 56 by Zulfiqar Babar – the highest by a number 10 for 15 years – lifting Pakistan from 96-5 to 417 in response to Sri Lanka’s 300 in the first innings, after rain washed out the first four sessions of the match.
Sri Lanka looked menacing almost throughout the match, till Sarfraz came together with Shafiq with the 139-run partnership. The latter ended up with a dogged 131 playing with the tail. From 142-1 with Kumar Sangakkara and Kaushal Silva cruising, Wahab Riaz led Pakistan’s comeback dismissing three of the Sri Lankan top four, firmly establishing himself as the spearhead of Pakistani pace attack in all three formats. The spinners wrapped up the tail to dismiss Sri Lanka for 300 on Day 3, with draw looking the likeliest outcome.
A batting collapse in the latter half of the third day meant that a result was well and truly on the cards, but only one team could realistically win it. It definitely wasn’t Pakistan.
Sarfraz’s counterattack gave Pakistan a 117 lead, leaving the hosts 21 awkward overs to negotiate on Day 4. With the ball turning and bouncing, and Yasir Shah getting increasing purchase from the surface, all of a sudden Pakistan were in the driving seat. Sangakkara’s soft dismissal a couple of overs before the close of play gave Pakistan and Yasir Shah the momentum heading into the final day, with Sri Lanka at 63-2 – 54 runs behind with eight wickets in hand.
Just like last year, the team batting third headed into the final day, with the draw still being the likeliest outcome. And just like last year, a spinner tore through the spine of the batting line-up, forcing a result out of nowhere.
Yasir replaced Rangana Herath – Pakistan’s tormentor-in-chief last year who only took a single wicket in the first Test – as the man who spun the fatal web. His 7-76 – the best figures by an overseas bowler in Sri Lanka – against a side renowned for playing spin well might just have announced his arrival at the biggest stage, and dare one say, heralded the arrival of Saeed Ajmal’s replacement as the lynchpin of Pakistan’s spin attack.
In Sarfraz Ahmed, Asad Shafiq and Yasir Shah the team has found new match-winners
Yasir’s repertoire might be missing a conventional flipper, and other flatter variations, but with 46 wickets already in 8 matches, his wicket taking ability is unquestionable. It is of course too soon to compare him to all-time great leg-spinners like Shane Warne, Abdul Qadir or even Mushtaq Ahmed, but Yasir has all the making of being a match-winner for Pakistan in the subcontinent and the Emirates for many years to come. Adding to his bowling weaponry would help him being a force outside the subcontinent as well.
Needing 90 to win, after Sri Lanka were bowled out for 206, the Pakistani openers – still arguably the weakest link in the formidable Test side – zoomed in on the target in merely 11.2 overs. It is Hafeez’s bowling ability that makes him an integral part of all three formats, but as has been reiterated by many, his batting leaves a lot to be desired, especially in a specialist position. Now with his action being reported again, he now faces the prospect of a bowling ban for at least a year, which can see him out of all three formats.
Ahmed Shehzad is hardly your dependable Test opener either. His technique is all over the place and he needed three chances to score his 43, while chasing a score of 90, with zero pressure and the Sri Lankan bowlers clearly down and out.
The traditionally strong middle order of Azhar Ali, Younis Khan and Misbahul Haq has now been complemented with Asad Shafiq’s stability and Sarfaz’s counterattacking aggression. Add a solid opening pair up top and Pakistan will boast a formidable batting line-up, at least in the sub-continent conditions.
Toss – Pakistan, who chose to field
Series – Pakistan led the 3-match series 1-0
Player of the match – Sarfraz Ahmed (Pakistan)
Close of play
Wed, 17 Jun – day 1 – no play
Thu, 18 Jun – day 2 – Sri Lanka 1st innings 178/3 (JK Silva 80*, AD Mathews 10*, 64 ov)
Fri, 19 Jun – day 3 – Pakistan 1st innings 118/5 (Asad Shafiq 14*, Sarfraz Ahmed 15*, 41.4 ov)
Sat, 20 Jun – day 4 – Sri Lanka 2nd innings 63/2 (FDM Karunaratne 36*, MDK Perera 0*, 21 ov)
Sun, 21 Jun – day 5 – Pakistan 2nd innings 92/0 (11.2 ov) – end of match
Courtesy: ESPN Cricinfo
The best part of Pakistan’s triumph was that in Sarfraz, Asad and Yasir, the team found new match-winners. With Misbah and Younis on the verge of retirement, and Saeed Ajmal already being buried in history books, the future of Pakistan’s Test side looks to be in relatively safe hands. If Pakistan can get the right results in the remaining two matches, it would further stamp its position as a strong Test unit away from ‘home’ as well. And with cricket slowly and steadily returning to the actual home, getting the right results on the field will boost the morals on multiple fronts.