Lack of first-class competition shows as Sri Lanka hit self-destruct sequence

Loss of wicket on day's final ball a minor blot as Pakistan take control of first Test

Pakistan bowler Bilawal Bhatti celebrates after dismissing Mahela Jayawardene during the first day of the first Test match in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. Ishara S Kodikara / AFP
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ABU DHABI // This, beginning on the last day of the year, is Sri Lanka’s fourth Test of the year. Australia and England have played 14 each. South Africa have played nine. India have, surprisingly, only played eight.

It is surprising because the noise that is made about every Test they do or do not play is so loud and permanent, that the figure feels like it should be higher.

Even Pakistan have played eight, and in front of Sri Lanka’s total, that sounds like a seriously overburdened schedule. If ever a side coming into a Test looked like it might not have played too many Tests, it was Sri Lanka on the first day at the Zayed Cricket Stadium on Tuesday.

They had not played since March, in fact, and none of their players had much first-class cricket in the interim. Even those appearances were two Tests against Bangladesh. The only Test in 2013 they had played against a top-ranking side was the New Year’s Test in Sydney against Australia.

In the meantime, they cancelled or postponed Tests against the West Indies and South Africa; the former to play an one-day tri-series in the Caribbean involving India and the latter so that they could arrange the Sri Lanka Premier League – which, of course, they never did. That is borderline basket-case administration.

Their skipper, Angelo Mathews, knew before the Test started that it was going to be tough.

“We are playing a Test match after a long time and that’s a challenge for us as a team,” he said. “We’ve played some four-day cricket before we left for Dubai, and we had some match practice there. But it’s not as good as playing a Test match.

“There will be a bit of rustiness, as there might be. But that’s the challenge of adjusting from ODI cricket to Test cricket as soon as possible. That will be the main challenge for us.”

It is a challenge their batsmen failed comprehensively on the first day. Granted, they lost the toss and were put in on a pitch that was grassier than they – or anyone – might have reasonably expected.

Granted, the ball does a bit in the mornings here. Granted, Pakistan always bring an attack, in whatever formation it appears, that will not be easy to face. And finally, we will also grant that Pakistan are at least in some kind of groove as far as Tests go.

But Sri Lanka’s collapse in the afternoon session was the result of nothing – not great bowling, not smart captaincy, not a really difficult pitch – but the unfamiliarity of their batsmen with long-form cricket this year.

They actually have a decent batting line-up, beefed up by two all-time country greats. They are inching toward a tricky transition, when Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara will eventually call it a day. But in Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne – absent with an ankle injury – they have reasons to look ahead to it with some confidence.

They had done the hardest part, which was to get to lunch unscathed, but then it fell apart.

Bilawal Bhatti and Junaid Khan bowled well, and better than they had in the morning, but most of the wickets that fell were shots that could only be excused if Sri Lanka were wearing blue and overs were running out.

Kaushal Silva’s jab to slip; Dimuth Karunaratne’s slash to point; Chandimal’s waft to slip; Jayawardene stuck at the crease; Sangakkara’s slap to point; Sachithra Senanayaka’s; these were six avoidable dismissals, that resonated loudest in the emptiness of their Test calendar.

Junaid began the afternoon collapse and picked up a fourth five-wicket haul against Sri Lanka. It left Pakistan in a dominant position, 158 runs behind Sri Lanka’s 204 with nine wickets in hand.

The wickets rounded out an impressive year for Junaid, though having played half of his 14 Tests against Sri Lanka, all four five-wicket hauls have come against the same foe.

He put his rise this year down to the coterie of former Pakistan bowlers he has worked with.

“I have role models like Wasim [Akram] and Waqar [Younis], and I also get tips from Mohammad Akram, so I’ve been improving day by day,” he said.