Eight of the ten scheduled days gone, and it could well be the ball of the series. Rangana Herath has bowled some contenders, and so has Yasir Shah. But in context of what the surfaces have been like for fast bowling, and especially the heat, Suranga Lakmal’s dismissal of Asad Shafiq on the third afternoon in Dubai will take some beating.
It was a 17-ball set-up, or 16 if you discount the very first ball, a loosener short and wide outside off that Shafiq slashed over slips for four. Fifteen of the 17 balls were on a good length, or just short of it, outside off stump. Whatever nibble there was, it was into Shafiq, whether it was the occasional cutter, or slight seam movement. The point was to make sure he played every ball, and he ended up leaving only three.
The last ball must have looked similar to the ones that had come before it. If anything, it seemed to shape in a bit more. This was the bluff though, because it landed, cut away, caught the edge and was taken at slip. A slip catch from a ball nearly 40 overs old in this series is easily worth five anywhere else. Skillful ball, skillful bowling.
The innate chauvinism of Pakistani fast bowling tradition dictates that, even with a pace trio who had only played 31 Tests between them coming into this series, they would somehow still be better than Sri Lanka’s, for whom Lakmal and Nuwan Pradeep had played a combined 63 Tests. It didn’t even matter that of Pakistan’s three, the most senior was among the most burdened, while the other two had just four Tests between them.
Instead, Lakmal’s dismissal of Shafiq was the embodiment of how Sri Lanka’s pace attack has outdone Pakistan’s in this series. Pure numbers won’t tell you that. Lakmal, Pradeep and Lahiru Gamage have nine wickets between them; Mohammad Abbas has eight all to himself, and Wahab Riaz, in just one Test, has four. And with 21 wickets so far – and the promise of a few more – for Herath and Dilruwan Perera, they will be the headline if Sri Lanka win the series.
But Lakmal and Pradeep have been every bit as wise as their experience, if not their career figures, suggests they should be. They have worked out the right lengths to bowl quicker than Pakistan’s bowlers and gotten more out of the new ball, all the while exhibiting far greater precision in what they have done.
“We worked on simple things,” said Rumesh Ratnayake, their bowling coach and an early Sri Lankan fast bowling hero. “We worked on angles. We worked on areas on the fourth and fifth stumps. We had option ‘A’ and option ‘B’.
“If one thing didn’t work we wanted to get back to the others. They executed that very well. It wasn’t express pace other than Pradeep. But it was a matter of having the ball in the right areas. It was not 140-plus but they hit the right areas.”
Having two spinners – and three in Abu Dhabi – has taken considerable load off. Lakmal and Pradeep have bowled 81 overs between them so far, where Abbas has bowled nearly 76 and Amir, before he was injured, nearly 59. But that’s just proof of Sri Lanka being smarter at reading conditions than Pakistan – as much as the surfaces, the heat has demanded more spinners. This series is the first time a Test has been played in September in the UAE, when temperatures are still more summer-like – it is two weeks earlier than they’ve ever scheduled a Test.
The earliest they started a Test series before this was the 2002 Tests against Australia, which began on October 11 and are remembered for the furnace-like conditions in which they were played. In contrast, these Tests will already be over by October 10. There have been several days over the two Tests when temperatures have topped 40 C, including the first afternoon in Dubai.
The first time Sri Lanka played a Test series here, in 2011, the Tests began on October 18; the last time, in 2013, they began on December 31. “It is very hard to handle the heat, but I would say we have managed the heat,” Ratnayake said, revealing also that Pradeep almost succumbed to it.
“The support staff we have here managed it quite well. Even though there was an injury to Nuwan, we managed him well. It was the stiffness on his hamstring. The support staff and skipper managed him well and nobody noticed it.”
If they do win the series, that kind of thing will only make the work of their fast bowlers more heroic.