Ending on a high

Sri Lanka’s trip of the United Arab Emirates to duel Pakistan was, for the most part, a low-profile engagement, at least when compared to the Ashes and India’s tour of South Africa. An analysis by Arun Venugopal.

They came in different forms, the heroes. There was some villainy, too, as is normally the case. The archetypes that are ever so integral to a piece of classic aligned themselves with unhurried cadence — a revered father-figure’s pent-up stress alleviated with a deserved parting gift; a young pack’s inversion of conservative equations; and a phlegmatic leader’s gaze of pride and satisfaction even as his counterpart wallowed in negativity.

Sri Lanka’s trip of the United Arab Emirates to duel Pakistan was, for the most part, a low-profile engagement, at least when compared to the Ashes and India’s tour of South Africa. The limited-overs series, in hindsight, seems to be just the right precursor to what transpired in the longer format. After the two-match T20 series was shared 1-1, the ODI series flung a few thrills. The first and the fifth games had the players queasy throughout. With the momentum changing hands frequently, the conclusion on each of the two occasions was decided only in the last over. Pakistan, however, ended on the right side with a 3-2 series victory.

The Test series trudged along initially, only spasmodically crackling into action. The final Test, in Sharjah, seemed preordained to be a dullathon, and it did head down that morose-looking alley for three-quarters of the game. Pakistan was down by a Test and had conceded a first-innings lead of 87 runs. Sri Lanka was desperate in a different context. Having not won a series outside the island nation since 2000, Sri Lanka wanted to clutch to its 1-0 lead. The mindset found expression in the Lankan batters’ approach.

The final session on Day Four must have been therapeutic even to the most incurable insomniac. Sri Lanka lay prone, barely in motion — never mind taking the game forward — as it scored at 1.36 runs an over. It ended the day on 133 for five, skipper Angelo Mathews and Prasanna Jayawardene at the crease. What unfolded the following day was something Sri Lanka hadn’t foreseen.

It persisted with the dead-bat in a quest to eat away time. The unintended consequence of the endeavour was the return to form of Saeed Ajmal. The off-spinner had a rare fallow streak in the series, picking up only 10 wickets at an average of 42.10. The visitor had done well thus far to neuter Ajmal in the tour, but the ultra-defensiveness helped the bowler dip into his latent venom. With left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman (four for 56) weaving an assiduous web, Ajmal had the luxury of crowding the batters. Sri Lanka’s reaction involved nary an assertive stroke. Jayawardene, with a brave counter-attacking knock, was the lone exception. Before long, the visitor’s innings was excised.

This was, nevertheless, no guarantee of a favourable result for Pakistan. It was, in fact, a long shot as the team required 302 from a possible 59 overs in two sessions. Pakistan though dared to risk losing in its quest for victory. After its openers showed brusque contempt for the cricket ball, Azhar Ali, replacing Mohammad Hafeez in the team, perpetuated the momentum. Sri Lanka, surprisingly, played along by setting defensive fields besides finding solace in negative bowling.

When Younis Khan was dismissed before tea, captain Misbah-ul-Haq, in a bold, instinctive punt, promoted ’keeper Sarfraz Ahmed ahead of him. Ahmed, who had replaced an injured Adnan Akmal after the first Test, had played a good hand in the second Test in Dubai, albeit in a losing cause. While his ’keeping was no more than passable, his spunk in a tense scenario must have elevated him in Pakistan’s pecking order. The Azhar-Sarfraz combine plundered 89 runs in as many balls; while the former’s approach was refined and risk-free, the latter revelled in a nothing-to-lose mentality.

When Sarfraz was dismissed, Pakistan needed 116 off 22.2 overs. Misbah, often uncharitably called ‘Tuk-Tuk’ for his cautious batting, motored along to an unbeaten 68 in 72 balls. Azhar, meanwhile, completed his hundred in the most important innings of his career. A harried Sri Lanka put nine men on the fence when Pakistan needed less than a run-a-ball in the last 10 overs. Rangana Herath was reduced to bowling outside the leg-stump, and in the dying light, Sri Lanka tried to stall proceedings only to be chided by the umpire. Soon, Misbah, beaming like a kid in a candy store, twirled an imaginary moustache, gesturing to Pakistan’s coach, the outgoing Dave Whatmore. Pakistan, scoring at 5.25 runs an over, had pulled off the fastest pursuit of a 300-plus target. “I guess we haven’t won chasing like that,” a delighted Misbah said later. He was pleased that Whatmore could get a good send-off gift. “I was really praying that we should win it for Pakistan and win it for Dav.” Whatmore, for his part, said, “I am sure that I will be back in a different capacity, sooner rather than later. I will always look forward to coming back to Pakistan.” Mathews, quite bizarrely, asserted that his team wasn’t pursuing negative tactics and it should have batted more patiently.

The youngsters on either side have delivered the goods despite the relative inexperience. Kaushal Silva (307 runs, avg: 51.16) has lived up to his billing and is expected to form a solid opening pair with Dimuth Karunaratne. Seamer Junaid Khan (14 wickets, avg: 28.71) continued to impress, while the Sri Lankan pace-pair of Shaminda Eranga and Suranga Lakmal (12 wickets) also stepped up to the plate.

Disturbingly for Pakistan, it plays its next Test series, against Australia, in nine months. Misbah was right in noting that it wasn’t ideal. “When you win Test matches, you gain confidence. Had there been a Test series in the near future, it would have benefited us. This team has been notching such victories, like winning against England and winning a Test match against South Africa. Except for Younis Khan, we don’t have many players who have played more than 50 Test matches that’s why you see sometimes we suffer collapses and our performances are not consistent.”