Babar and co. will have to win all the remaining Tests.
Bilal Ahsan Dar
As part of the fixture of 2021-2023 ICC World Test Championship, Pakistan toured Sri Lanka this July to play a two-match series. Originally, the tour also included three ODIs which were cancelled in the month of May as they were not a part of the 2020-2023 ICC Cricket World Cup Super League. The matches were scheduled to be played at Premadasa Stadium in Columbo and Galle International Stadium, but due to the ongoing turmoil in the country, the second Test was moved from Columbo to Galle.
Sri Lanka, though, going through a serious political crisis and with a relatively inexperienced side were fresh from their win over Australia. The victory over Australia was spearheaded by debutant left arm spinner Prabath Jaysuriya who claimed an impressive 12-wicket haul and Dinesh Chandimal who scored an unbeaten 206.
Pakistan, on the other hand, lost to Australia at home and so they were expected to be looking to set the record straight. Yasir Shah made a comeback as an attacking leggie on turning tracks.
The series was critical for both the teams to score some points for the WTC finals, making it more exciting.
In the first test match, Dimuth Karunaratne won the toss and chose to bat first. Pakistani bowlers made an impressive start and reduced the Lankans to 133/8 at one stage. But it was Dinesh Chandimal and the tailenders Mahesh Theekshana and Kasun Rajitha who resisted with a counter attack and took hosts to 222. Shaheen Afridi was the star with a four-wicket haul.
In reply Pakistan had a similar situation before Skipper Babar Azam led from the front with another outstanding hundred. He made a well fought 117 and minimized the deficit to just four runs.
In the second innings with Dinesh Chandimal’s yet another brilliant performance, the hosts set an uphill target of 342.
Pakistan began the chase on a positive note before a little hiccup when Imam-ul-haq and Azhar Ali got out in quick succession. However youngster Abdullah Shafique stood calm and composed at one end and shared crucial partnerships with Babar and Rizwan. Pakistan eventually pulled off a historical win by four wickets.
Having spun their way to an emphatic victory and drawn the home test series against Australia , Sri Lanka expectedly banked on their strength and played three spinners and just one fast bowler in the match. Pakistan, on the other hand, surprised with their playing eleven. They played a totally opposite sort of bowling attack on a rank turner. While Sri Lanka’s playing three spinners was pretty understandable, Pakistan playing three fast bowlers and leaving out a regular batsman was a big surprise. And the batsman left out was none other than Fawad Alam who in the line-up has the best stats versus spin. Thanks to the tailenders like Naseem shah and Yasir Shah who later on proved to be instrumental in stitching a couple of valuable partnerships with Babar to steady the ship in the first innings.
Babar Azam yet again displayed why he is rated so high in the cricket world. On a pitch where others struggled to anticipate the turning cherry, Babar looked at ease playing his natural game. He batted like a master and scored one of the best Test hundreds in the history of Pakistan. His fifty in the second innings was no less elegant before misjudging a very good delivery from Jayasurya.
The key highlight of the match, though, was Abdullah Shafique’s match winning knock in the second innings. While many had doubts about Pakistan’s chase, Abdullah had other ideas. A youngster who wasn’t deterred by a huge target, first innings failure or the pitch that helped the opposition spinners who were at the peak of their confidence.
Shafique was rock solid in his epic innings of 160 and displayed maturity beyond his years. An unadulterated old school Test batting with determination was the hall mark of his innings. “A star is born today,” said Javed Miandad emphatically after Pakistan’s win.
However, Pakistan would be worrying about the form of regular No. 3, Azhar Ali. He hasn’t scored many runs in recent times and should be finding it tough to retain his place, more so when Shan Masood who recently scored heavily in the county is waiting in the wings.
Sri Lanka, despite the loss, had some positives to take away. Prabath Jayasuriya, playing only his second Test, was already leading the pack in the bowling department. Even though it was unfair to expect an inexperienced bowler to lead from the front, but his debut performance against Australia had impressed oneand all and raised the expectations. He didn’t disappoint in this match too, A fifer in the first innings joining some legends of the game to do so – three five-wicket hauls in first three innings of a Test career. It was followed bya four-for in the second innings. With that impressive start, he looks like an able replacement of Rangana Herath.
Dinesh Chandimal looks to have come of age – one of the most improved players over the last year or so. After an impressive debut and initial promise, he hadn’t been delivering consistently to his potential, but, oflate, he looks more mature, improved and in form of his life. He started from where he left after scoring a match winning double hundred against the Aussies.
The second Test was again expected to be an exciting one. Karunaratne won the toss and had no hesitation in batting first. A 92-run first wicket stand set the tone for the hosts. Pakistan badly missed Shaheen Shah Afridi, who was injured and replaced by left arm spinner Nauman Ali .
Hassan Ali’s poor form didn’t help either. Thankfully for Pakistan, Mohammad Nawaz broke the opening stand and Pakistan spinners got a couple more in quick succession. Nevertheless, Chandimal was again the man for the crisis with a magnificent 80, well supported by senior pro Angelo Matthews. The hosts eventually ended up with 378 all out.
In reply, Pakistan had a bad start. Hero of the first test match, Abdullah Shafique got out for a duck. With out of form Azhar Ali dropped from the playing eleven, Pakistan, had replaced him with Fawad Alam, a middle order batsman who normally plays at number 5 or 6. Shan Masood who is a top order batsman and scored heavily in the county circuit over the last few months was not considered, which, keeping in view his recent county stint, could have been a better replacement for one drop position. This altered the whole batting order and Babar Azam had to bat at number three. Pakistan batsman got starts but couldn’t capitalize as the Lankan bowlers kept bowling in the good areas consistently. Pakistan could only manage 231 runs with rookie Agha Salman top scoring with 62. For the Lankans, Ramesh Mendis got a five-wicket haul.
The hosts were in the driver’s seat with a lead of 147 runs but lost some early wickets after regular intervals before Dananjaya Desilva (109) and captain Karunaratne (61) who came to bat at No.5 for remaining out of the ground due to back spasm put on a 126-run partnership to consolidate the position of the team. Pakistan bowled well in patches but lacked consistency. Young Naseem shah was the pick of the bowlers with 2-44 and bowled an impressive fast bowling spell on the fourth day morning.
Hosts declared their second innings at 360-8 with a total lead of 507. Pakistan started positively, however, the man in focus Abdullah Shafique again missed out cheaply for just 16. Imamul Haq and Skipper Babar Azam studied the ship before bad light ended the day earlier.
Coming into Day 5, Pakistan resumed on 89-1. Offspiner Ramesh Mendis struck on his first ball of the day to get Imamul-Haq caught behind, with the left hander adding just three runs to his overnight score of 46. It was expected that Pakistan might play out a draw, especially when Babar and Rizwan were going so well. But the find of the summer, Prabath Jayasuriya, broke the vigil. Babar tried to hold the fort long enough, but didn’t have support at the other end and ultimately when he too fell to Jayasuriya, it was curtains for the visitors.
It was a typical Pakistan Collapse – from176/2 to 261 all out.
Sri Lanka dominated on almost all 5 days. The spinners did a remarkable job in leveling the series after the batters provided them an ideal platform.
For Pakistan, the chances of qualifying for the WTC finals are becoming tougher, since they slip from No 3 to No 5 on the points table.
Babar’s decision-making especially with respect to the team selection may come under severe criticism. Playing a batsman short and preferring bits and pieces players over specialists can be questioned. Repeated chances to Hassan Ali, who is not delivering, is also unintelligible.
To qualify for the WTC finals, Pakistan will need some luck and winning all the remaining test matches.
Bilal Ahsan Dar is a blogger and cricket buff.