The scene was set for a glowing farewell. One of the Emerald Isle’s most beloved sons, Mahela Jayawardene, was playing his last Test at his home stadium and favourite hunting ground at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC), after a highly illustrious career spanning 17 years.
It was a carnival atmosphere even before a single ball was bowled. The bass and trumpet bands had set the mood ahead of the start of play.
The jamboree swelled when Sri Lankan captain Angelo Mathews won the toss and gladly decided to bat first on a surface that appeared as flat as one of Jayawardene’s silken drives through the cover.
Sri Lanka hadn’t lost at the SSC in a decade. The track, where Jayawardene had scored more than 2,800 of his 11,700-plus Test runs, was ready to greet its greatest warrior for one last hurrah. He was 137 runs short of 3,000 runs at the venue. It had to be.
However, this is when Pakistan decided to announce that they were also playing. Misbah-ul-Haq’s men were down 1-0 in the two-match series and were expected to be compliant visitors in the farewell match. Unfortunately for the hosts, no one had bothered to tell them.
For the first couple of hours, it all seemed to be going hunky-dory for the Lankans, as they took lunch unscathed at 69-0 following a slow and steady first session.
Opener Upul Tharanga, after a scratchy start, slowly started to oil his machinery. The quirky Kaushal Silva supported his partner and built along in his own unique way.
Silva fell to Junaid Khan’s outswing after lunch, only to bring Kumar Sangakkara to the crease to join his fellow southpaw. The duo carried on and by the time the drinks break was taken in the afternoon session, Pakistan were already wilting and staring at a long toil in the sun.
Then, against the run of play, Wahab Riaz bowled a screamer to break through Sangakkara’s gates after nicely setting him up with short ones. And just like that, the wheels slowly started coming off.
By the end of play, the Lankan cart was hurtling full speed ahead down the hill towards a deep and embarrassing abyss. Their last-standing brake lever, Mathews (39), was uprooted by Riaz on what turned out to be the final ball of the day, all but ending a capitulation from 144-1 to 261-8.
Perhaps the Lankans, like everyone watching the game, including the Pakistanis, underestimated the nature of the track, which as the day progressed began to look more like a Day 3 surface.
However, nothing could be taken away from the Pakistani bowlers, especially the quicks Junaid and Wahab, who bent their backs and bowled their hearts out—their most productive spells coming with the old ball.
The way they set up some of the batsmen was a masterclass for young bowlers on how to operate while bowling on a flat track.
As for Jayawardene, he would learn that fairy-tales aren’t as common as he would like, with Saeed Ajmal sending him packing after facing just 16 deliveries. It would be Ajmal’s only wicket of the day, but the off-spinner was relentless as always with his accuracy and constant probing and kept up the pressure on the hosts throughout.
The day belonged to Junaid (4-69) and Riaz (3-66), who with seven wickets between them have put the visitors in a rare position of command in the Lankans’ most intimidating den. If the Pakistanis had caught better, they would have even got to bat for a bit.
Nonetheless, Pakistan will remember that they were in a similar position of command after the first innings at Galle after posting 450 on the board, only to concede a big lead and lose the game eventually.
How the tourists bat in their first innings on Friday will define the direction in which this match is going. The Lankans, who are playing for Jayawardene, are bound to come back hard.
If the Pakistani batsmen show a little more conviction and application than their hosts out in the middle, they could just wash out Jayawardene's gala.
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