Six thousand two hundred and twenty one days after earning his Test cap at the nearby Premadasa Stadium, Mahela Jayawardene’s life as a Test cricketer came a full circle as he strode out for the last lap at the SSC, his favourite venue. Everything seemed like it was as per the script: bright skies, a firm pitch with nothing for the bowlers, Sri Lanka winning the toss and opting to bat and a solid platform by the openers. The farewell of one Sri Lanka’s best batsman couldn’t have been planned any better. Except, the Pakistan bowlers had their own agenda.
Jayawardene arrived at the crease for the 251st time, to a guard of honour by the Pakistan team and with the crackle of the firecrackers in the background, 25 minutes before tea. He was 137 short of 3000 runs at the venue but could only shave off four runs in a nervous stay that ended in the first over after tea. In the 16 deliveries that he faced, he was dropped once by the wicketkeeper off Junaid Khan before he was trapped by a sharp offspinner from Saeed Ajmal. He chose not to review, and rightly so.
Misbah-ul-Haq may have patted Jayawardene’s back but at that moment, the relief of having dismissed Kumar Sangakkara, their tormentor in Galle, was still writ on Pakistan captain’s face. In a rare failure, Sangakkara had been dismissed for 22 as he chopped on a length delivery from Wahab Riaz. He had added 65 for the second wicket with Upul Tharanga, who scored 92, at 4.33 runs an over. Jayawardene’s dismissal soon after gave Pakistan the upper hand. The bowlers struck five more times in the third session to take control.
It was a solid effort from Pakistan on a pitch that had nothing for the bowlers. They stuck to disciplined lines and found the odd bit of life. Fortunately for Pakistan, it was one of those days where almost every time the ball did something, it induced a fatal error from the batsmen. That Pakistan had eight wickets by the end of the day despite dropping a few catches was evidence of the number of chances created.
Junaid got the odd ball to move off the pitch, Wahab, playing his first Test in three years, generated hustling pace, Abdur Rehman was disciplined throughout and Ajmal did better than the Mars Rover by finding life where there was none. And that, despite not being able to find a breakthrough in the first 33 overs during which it looked like the pitch was a bowler’s graveyard.
Then, Junaid went round the stumps, pushed the compact Kaushal Silva back with a sharp bouncer, before luring the batsman into a loose drive off a widish-length delivery. Sarfraz Ahmed did the rest, taking a sharp chance low to his left, ending the opening stand at 79 – Sri Lanka’s best since the 118-run stand in Dhaka in January. Silva, who had picked up five boundaries through point off Wahab, was dismissed for 41.
It was Wahab, though, who caught the biggest fish, picking up the wicket of Sangakkara. Initially a bit wayward, Wahab corrected his radar and posed problems with his pace. He troubled Tharanga with short ones and eventually picked up the opener through a sharp catch by Azhar Ali at short leg.
Till then, Tharanga had looked on course for his second Test century despite not being the most fluent. Junaid induced a couple of false strokes from him in the first over as some deliveries seamed away, he was beaten by Ajmal’s turn, survived a stumping chance on 28 and picked up some runs off edges. But he also picked up 12 boundaries, most of them emphatic hits through off. One such shot – a fierce cut off Wahab – helped him cross fifty for the fifth time in Tests.
Ajmal had troubled Tharanga through the innings. In his fourth over, he beat an advancing Tharanga in the air only to see the wicketkeeper miss the stumping. The blame could hardly be laid on Sarfraz, though, because the ball had kicked off the pitch, smacking the keeper on the side of the head for which he required some treatment. The bowler also drew an outside edge off Tharanga but that dropped short of Younis Khan at first slip. But a sign of Tharanga’s growing confidence was his two boundaries – both through the covers – off the spinner in the 47th over. However, he was dismissed 10 runs after Jayawardene’s departure, leaving the repair job with Angelo Mathews.
But all Mathews could do was watch as Pakistan picked up wickets at regular intervals at the other end. Junaid trapped Niroshan Dickwella and Dilruwan Perera lbw in the first over with the second new ball, the DRS ruling in Pakistan’s favour in both cases. Mathews joined the others in the pavilion soon, edging a short of length delivery from Wahab to the keeper, down the leg side. He reviewed, but lost. Strangely, the DRS had not been used during the first 80 overs at all. It was that sort of a day.