Pakistan gave yet another demonstration of how far they have progressed from their collapse-prone avatar of recent years by posting a solid 282 for 6 on the third day of the final Test in Sharjah. The three middle-order batsmen instrumental in providing steel to the Pakistan line-up over the past year all made substantial contributions on a track which was truer than expected. Younis Khan made the biggest impact by going on to his 18th Test century, Azhar Ali collected his sixth 50-plus score in five Tests and Misbah-ul-Haq helped himself to another laboriously crafted half-century.
With the Pakistan openers dismissed on Friday, when the pitch was providing plenty of turn and bounce, Sri Lanka would have expected their bowlers to be a handful in the morning. Instead, they had the bad news that fast bowler Dhammika Prasad wouldn't bowl in the match due to a thigh strain. The other medium-pacers Chanaka Welegedara and Kosala Kulasekara bowled at a gentle pace, and got some movement to induce a few plays-and-misses from the batsmen but weren't able to prise out a wicket.
Every time they strayed, Pakistan's batsmen capitalised. It was one of those loose deliveries that helped Pakistan end a series of nine successive maidens as Azhar slashed a short and wide ball from Kulasekara past cover to get Pakistan going in the morning. Most of his six boundaries came when the quicks either drifted on to the pads or provided him plenty of width.
After their slow start, Azhar and Younis stepped up the pace to put together one of the most productive batting sessions of the Test. Younis consumed 30 deliveries before getting off the mark, but was full of positive intent after that. There was no better sign of his growing confidence than his big grin after muscling Rangana Herath for a one-bounce four over extra cover midway through the morning session. His innings showcased his mastery of the sweep shot - the paddle sweep, the slog-sweep and the reverse-sweep were all used effectively against the spinners.
The second session began with Herath bowling well outside leg stump, trying to get some turn out of the rough. That did produce a leading edge off Younis, but there were no major alarms and the tactic only helped to stifle the runs. Kulasekara, forced off the field in the morning due to a bloodied thumb after a botched fielding effort, returned to produce the breakthrough Sri Lanka were desperately seeking, getting a ball to snake in sharply to beat Azhar's bat and crash into the off stump.
That brought in Misbah-ul-Haq, who was extremely watchful, even by his own leisurely standards, laboriously making his way to 2 off 52 deliveries. Younis, though, showed he couldn't be restrained, sashaying down the track to launch Herath over long-on for a boundary. Even though Misbah was in his shell, Younis produced the most profitable over of the day for Pakistan, paddling Suraj Randiv from outside off for four, before clubbing him over deep square leg for a six. His only moment of concern in the session was when he was hit on the helmet by a throw from mid-off as he completed a tight single.
It was a race against the clock to reach his century before tea, and he managed to get there in the final over of the session, pushing the ball to cover to zip through for a single. He continued to be aggressive against the spinners after reaching his hundred, but the second new ball accounted for him. The first delivery after the ball was changed bent in sharply, beating his bat and taking off stump.
By then, Misbah was being a bit more expansive, and he guided Pakistan towards stumps. Asad Shafiq hit a couple of boundaries in an otherwise watchful innings that ended on 16 when he feathered Welegedara to the keeper.
The two relatively quick wickets perked up Sri Lanka, and they almost had the crucial one of Misbah as well soon after when he attempted a swipe to midwicket. That resulted in a top-edge which flew over the slips and Misbah survived. Adnan Akmal, though, couldn't make it to stumps as he was undone by Herath, who got the ball to hold its line after the previous delivery had spun away. Adnan didn't read it and was trapped lbw.
Despite those late wickets, it was a satisfying day for Pakistan as they bettered their chances of averting defeat, and winning the series - the sort of news their fans await after a dark week for Pakistan cricket.