Sangakkara, Dilshan take Sri Lanka close to safety

Wet outfield in the morning and obligatory showers in the afternoon meant a result was the farthest thing on people’s minds despite four late strikes towards the end of the day, inspired by a spirited burst from Junaid Khan. The prospects of a result have been so bleak that, surreally, even the steel bands have given this Test a miss.

There was nothing surreal about Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan filling their boots on their favourite surface and against their favourite opposition. This was Sangakkara’s ninth century against Pakistan, 30th overall, overtaking Don Bradman’s tally of 29. Like Sangakkara, Dilshan too scored his second century of the series. He also became only the eighth Sri Lankan to reach 5,000 Test runs. There was another statistical event: late in the day Mahela Jayawardene registered his first duck at SSC, but it seemed like his first score of under 100 here.

The pitch only began to misbehave when the two were approaching their centuries. That, combined with the time lost to weather, meant there was little scoreboard pressure on the two. It always seemed a matter of when, not if, when the two would get to their centuries. Sangakkara, in particular, looked certain he would get one, and make it a big one. Along the way came instructive milestones. When he nudged Junaid to fine leg for his 57th run, he became only the fourth man to have scored 2000 runs at a single venue, behind Graham Gooch at Lord’s, Jacques Kallis at Newlands, and Mahela Jayawardene in Galle and at the SSC. Two overs later, when he pulled Junaid behind square, the couple took him to 2090 runs against Pakistan, more than anybody else, then at an average of 87.

Sangakkara began the day on 22, and kept on clipping balls off his pads with ease. The only time he looked in any discomfort was when he drove at wide deliveries to edge them just out of reach of gully. Dilshan carried his reckless approach from day three into this morning too, but after two plays and misses he put his head down and cut out all the risks. He didn’t mind Sangakkara overtaking him even though he began the day 24 ahead. He scored just 14 runs in the first session, but was a much more reassuring sight than in the last session on day two.

Dilshan’s extravagance nearly cost him his wicket when he went after an Aizaz Cheema delivery so wide it would have been called in ODIs. Cheema managed to get another delivery to lift towards Dilshan’s chest early on in the day, but that was the only inconvenience the pitch caused in the morning, especially once the batsmen decided they could do without undue risks. Only the rare quick turning delivery from Abdur Rehman in the last over before lunch managed to beat the bat.

After a sumptuously long lunch break, thanks to the rain, Rehman remained the only semblance of a threat. Still Dilshan picked up the rate, and the only contest to observe was the race to the centuries. Sangakkara was 72, and Dilshan 60 at lunch. An hour-long middle session later, Dilshan had reached 85, and Sangakkara 90, with Rehman posing the only questions.

When on 86, Sangakkara played back to a full ball from Rehman, and was beaten. Just like the last over before lunch, the last over before tea, from Rehman, featured one rare sharp turner that beat Dilshan. An inside edge denied him an lbw next ball. The pitch had become to offer some turn now, making you wonder if this would have been a tame draw we hadn’t lost so much time to rain.

After tea, the two found themselves level at 98, but Dilshan burst through the photo finish with a six off Saeed Ajmal. Sangakkara chose the quieter way to get to the century. Dilshan grew adventurous again, scoring 23 off the last 19 balls he faced. Junaid, though, came back to squeeze one through from round the stumps to catch him plumb in front.

Even as Sangakkara marched on, Junaid’s round-the-stumps angle troubled the other batsmen. Jayawardene shouldered arms to what looked like harmlessly wide, but was hit slightly above the knee roll just outside off. Simon Taufel took his time before raising the finger, and Pakistan could sense room for one final push. With 102 still required to avoid follow-on, they attacked.

Thilan Samaraweera edged Ajmal just short of leg gully. Junaid came back with another impressive lbw shout from the same angle, and was denied. Pakistan had absolutely surrounded Samaraweera by then. There was no letting pressure up, especially that close to stumps. Samaraweera finally succumbed for an 18-ball duck, missing an Ajmal offbreak from round the stumps. The innings now featured only centuries and ducks.

Suraj Randiv came out as the nightwatchman, safety still 93 runs away, and a maximum of 38 minutes to stumps. Junaid tested Randiv for an over, drawing another close lbw shout and making him keep a yorker out. With Sangakkara the immovable object, Randiv hung on for dear life until he fell to a Rehman arm ball that also proved to be the last ball of the day. The 15.4 overs since Dilshan’s dismissal were edgy stuff, the only edgy stuff of the day. Arguably the match.

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