Sri Lanka arrived in the UAE in the backdrop of a 9-0 drubbing by India in all formats combined. They were supposed to be mere pushovers for a Pakistani team which has been playing its “home” series in the UAE since 2009 and UAE, in particular Abu Dhabi is considered to be a fortress of Pakistani cricket. In 9 test matches prior to this one, Pakistan had won 5 and drawn 4 of their matches at the Sheikh Zayed stadium. A wounded Sri Lankan team was not expected to pose any threats. But Pakistan were going through a transition phase themselves, having lost their 2 premier batsmen Misbah and Younis to retirement.
Chandimal won the toss for Sri Lanka and had no hesitation in batting first. Pakistan made a grave mistake of playing Yasir Shah as their only spinner and going with 3 pacers. On the contrary, Sri Lanka went in with 3 spinners. Pakistan handed a test cap to Haris Sohail and Shan Masood and Sami Aslam made their comebacks.
Pakistan began positively as Sri Lanka were reduced to 61-3 in the 1st innings. But Karunaratne and Chandimal put on 100 for the 4th wicket and Karunaratne was unfortunate to be run out on 93. But Chandimal found a new partner in Dickwella as they put on a 134 run partnership for the 5th wicket. Chandimal kept on going even as he was losing partners on the other end and he eventually finished with 155* as Sri Lanka were bowled out for 419. Abbas and Yasir Shah took 3 wickets each and Hassan Ali chipped in with 2 wickets.
The Pakistani openers began well as both Shan Masood and Sami Aslam scored half centuries on their comebacks. But both fell in quick succession as 114-0 became 116-2. In came Asad and Azhar, Pakistan’s heirs to Misbah and Younis. They did well for sometime but Asad Shafiq gave his wicket away on 39. When he had got a start, he should’ve made it big, like Younis and Misbah often did but a lapse in concentration cost him his wicket. Babar Azam came in next but his curious case continues to baffle many, an average of 50+ in ODI’s and T20’s but an average of just 27 in tests. Babar was then dismissed for 27 on the last ball of day 3. Day 4 began with the debutant Haris Sohail joining Azhar Ali. Azhar soon perished for a well made 85 and Sarfraz didn’t contribute much either as Haris was left to bat with the tail. He showed great composure in doing so and put on 106 for the last 4 wickets as the Pakistani innings folded for 422, giving Pakistan a slender lead of 3 runs. For Sri Lanka, Herath was the tormentor in chief as he picked up a 5 wicket haul.
Sri Lanka found themselves in danger at stumps on day 4 as they were 61-4 with Haris Sohail and Asad Shafiq unexpectedly getting a wicket apiece. Day 5 didn’t bring any respite to the Lankans as Yasir Shah wove his magic to leave them reeling at 101-8. A couple of dropped catches and some sloppy fielding meant Sri Lanka stumbled to 138, setting Pakistan a somewhat easy target of 136 runs. Yasir Shah was the pick of the bowlers with 5 wickets and Abbas got 2 wickets too as he bowled a superb spell on day 5 complementing Yasir Shah from the other end.
Facing Rangana Herath, Pakistan’s old nemesis on a day 5 pitch with some uneven bounce was never going to be easy but 136 is a target which still should’ve been achieved. Pakistan’s openers came out and it was too evident that they were nervous. The negative mindset which they began with cost Pakistan the match. Sami Aslam went for just 2 and Azhar Ali bagged a duck. Shan Masood soon followed with just 7 and then began a procession. The Pakistani players were probably saying to each other “tu chal main aaya” as no one could occupy the crease long enough to put pressure on Herath and co. Only Haris Sohail batted well but even his 34 runs couldn’t take Pakistan home as they were dismissed for a paltry total of 114 with Sri Lanka winning by 21 runs. Herath took 6 wickets again as he took his career tally to 400 and became the 1st man in history to take 100 wickets against Pakistan.
A postmortem of the match shows us that Pakistan clearly read the pitch wrong. Seeing a tinch of grass on the pitch, they probably thought it would seam and swing so they went for 3 fast bowlers. But that backfired as the grass was only an illusion ad the pitch turned out to be a typical UAE pitch. A batting paradise on the 1st 3 days and then turn and bounce on the final 2 days for the spinners. But Pakistan now has to regroup quickly as they have only a handful of days before the 2nd and final test begins in Dubai. Here’s to hoping they can rectify their mistakes and come back strongly. Until then, Goodbye!