Replying to Sri Lanka’s first innings of 419, Pakistan who resumed at 64 without loss carried their total to 266 for four wickets by stumps, to trail by 153.
Azhar Ali played a dogged knock to remain unbeaten on 74 scored off 200 balls with three fours, having passed 5000 runs in Test cricket on the way, the fourth fastest Pakistani after Younus Khan, Javed Miandad and Mohammad Yousuf and eighth. His half century that came off 137 balls comprised just a single boundary.
Pakistan lost the wicket of Babar Azam for 28 on the stroke of the day’s end when he was caught down the leg side by Dickwella to give Nuwan Pradeep his first wicket of the innings.
With the exception of the odd ball that has kept low or spun sharply there was hardly anything on it for the bowlers. In the circumstances one would expect the bat to dominate over the ball, but what defeated everyone was the thickly populated outfield of grass and the long boundaries that brought about a paucity of fours.
The slow pace of the game had nothing to do with oppressive heat although the temperatures ranged from between 35 and 40 and the humidity was around 46 that forced the fielders to have drinks breaks in the shade of the stadium and the batsmen under the shade of a large umbrella brought onto the field by the substitutes.
After Shan Masood and Sami Aslam had laid the foundation for a big Pakistan total by sharing a century partnership the first time they had opened together, it was left to Pakistan’s most durable pair Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq to stabilise the batting against some testing bowling by the Lankan spinners.
They did it to a point putting together a stand of 79 off 226 balls before Rangana Herath with the second new ball had Shafiq caught in the slips by Thirimanne for 39 in the second over after the tea break.
It was vital for Pakistan to get a first innings lead as they will have to bat last on the pitch which so far has not produced anything to cause alarm, but with a lot of cracks on it can suddenly start to play on the minds of the batsmen if one or two deliveries starts to jump around.
The Pakistan openers negotiated the first hour’s play with Sri Lanka missing out on the opportunity to break the stand when Masood was missed at 51 in Herath’s first over of the day by Karunaratne at slip - the edge coming off wicket-keeper Dickwella’s thigh that may have slightly distracted the fielder although he managed to get a hand to it.
It was Dilruwan Perera who finally broke through for Sri Lanka by trapping Aslam leg before for 51 to end the opening stand of 114 off 267 balls. Aslam took 131 balls over his seventh Test half century that comprised four fours.
Herath accounted for the other opener Masood bowling him around his legs for 59 off 148 balls to an awful shot attempting a pull with his leg stump exposed. Within two runs of each other both openers were back in the pavilion and Sri Lanka would have picked up two more had not Azhar Ali got an inside edge after being given out lbw and reviewed it successfully and Shafiq survived a stumping chance at one off Lakshan Sandakan. Replays clearly showed Shafiq’s foot on the crease and not behind it. The third umpire was Pakistan’s Ahsan Raza who was pushed into that position from fourth umpire following the illness to Ian Gould.
If Sri Lanka was found to be too slow on the first session of the first day when they scored 61-3, Pakistan with two set openers added only 57-2 off 30 overs on the third morning. There wasn’t any urgency shown by the batsmen to press for runs as both teams played a cat and mouse game trying to get on top of each other. The second session produced 73 runs without any loss and the third 72 for two wickets.
It was understandable for Sri Lanka to bat slowly and build their innings having lost their first three wickets for 61 runs and trying to come out of a disastrous series at home against India, but in Pakistan’s case there was no excuse as the openers gave them a solid start by posting over a hundred. They should have increased the momentum and put the pressure back on Sri Lanka but instead they went into an over defensive mode playing cautious cricket and at the end of the third day neither team held the advantage.