For so much of the afternoon and the evening sessions, it seemed as if Pakistan were marching non-plussed towards their monumental target. Abdullah Shafique had hit as flawless a hundred as you could hope for on a fourth-day Galle surface. Babar Azam had been solid in partnership with him, and the stand was nearing a hundred.
Best of all for Pakistan, Sri Lanka’s bowlers seemed to be getting very little out of a surface that should be a spin-bowling fantasy strip by now. But suddenly, around 75 overs through the innings, the pitch came to life. Shafique and Babar had only played and missed at the occasional delivery since tea, confidently padding plenty away, leaving the ones outside off alone, and getting enough bat to the rest that even half-chances were sparse.
In the last 10 overs of the day though, Pakistan’s batters were suddenly under huge pressure. Though they had batted to get themselves within striking distance and put themselves ahead in the chase, the 120 to get at stumps seemed a distance off even with seven wickets in hand.
They had batted exceedingly well to even give themselves a chance, however. Shafique led the effort and was unbeaten on 112 by stumps, frequently using his feet to create the single options, using the depth of the crease when the bowlers pitched slightly short, while using all the defensive manoeuvres against spin – padding away balls that pitched outside leg, letting the ones that weren’t threatening the stumps go. All up, he’d hit only 26 runs in boundaries – mostly legside fours and a six into the sightscreen. This was an innings built on patience and supreme confidence in his defence.
He’d set the platform with Imam-ul-Haq, as the openers took Pakistan to 87 for no loss. That partnership was not without its early jitters, however. Shafique could have been out lbw to Prabath Jayasuriya in the third over, but the review showed the ball failed to hit enough of leg stump to overturn the not-out decision. Imam then was given out against Kasun Rajitha, but reviewed successfully – the ball projected to have been passing over the stumps. Not long after that, Imam sent a difficult catch over the infield as well, and a diving Dinesh Chandimal could not hold on, sprinting back from cover.
That this stand was broken was more down to nifty wicketkeeping and batter error, than sustained pressure from the bowlers. Batting on 35, Imam raised his back foot after leaving a Ramesh Mendis delivery. In the fraction of a second Imam’s boot was in the air, Niroshan Dickwella whipped off a bail. The third umpire’s decision was several minutes and many replays in the making, but there was one angle, from side on, showing the boot to be clearly in the air. Azhar Ali then batted 32 balls but was caught at slip off Jayasuriya’s bowling.
Where Shafique was measured through the course of his innings, Babar imposed himself on the opposition early in his knock. He announced his arrival with a whip through mid-on for four, then crashed a six and a four off over midwicket in one Jayasuriya over, to get Pakistan moving again after the loss of the second wicket. He too, though, soon settled into a pattern of accumulation, favouring the legside for his bigger shots. He had a desperate lbw review burned on him shortly before tea. He and Shafique seemed intent on doing it as risk-free as possible – 31 of Babar’s 55 came from singles, and there was a solitary two.
Dimuth Karunaratne often likes to make batters face as many balls as possible at Galle, putting fielders on the boundary even early in their innings. The rationale here is that eventually, there will be a delivery that gets the batter out. Shafique and Babar defied this for 237 balls, during which they made 101 runs. Babar was eventually bowled trying to pad away Jayasuriya, who was coming over the wicket to pitch into the rough. He survived plenty that spun sharply from the dark spots, but late in the day, in the middle of that period in which the pitch suddenly started to spit, he didn’t quite get his front foot far enough to leg. Jayasuriya pitched it beyond the reach of his stride and turned it back into leg stump.
Early in the day, Chandimal added eight to Sri Lanka’s overnight score, but missed out on a century when Naseem Shah burst through Prabath Jayasuriya’s defences.
The match is now set for a tantalising final three hours. Pakistan are close. Sri Lanka have a new ball in hand, which tends to spit and spin more than the older ones. Shafique’s wicket seems like the vital one.