Azhar Ali leads Pakistan's crawl towards parity

Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Abu Dhabi, 3rd day, September 30, 2017 September 30, 2017

Stumps Pakistan 266 for 4 (Azhar 74*, Masood 59, Herath 2-47) trail Sri Lanka 419 (Chandimal 155*) by 153 runs

Fifties from Pakistan's top three ensured Pakistan edged - very slowly but surely - towards Sri Lanka's imposing first innings total of 419. Neither side gave up much ground on a blazing day in Abu Dhabi on a day that was hardly the best advertisement for how Test cricket is to thrive in the 21st century. Pakistan added 202 runs over the course of the entire day's play for four wickets to finish on 266 for 4, 153 runs behind Sri Lanka. Azhar Ali was the star performer for Pakistan, unbeaten at the end on 74. He might have hoped to build on a productive partnership with Babar Azam, but the No. 5 fell off the day's last delivery, chasing one that was drifting down the leg side.

Entry to the Zayed Stadium was free, yet the crowd was almost non-existent, and with the lack of excitement the day offered, one couldn't really complain. Perhaps Pakistan felt cowed by Sri Lanka's large total, and didn't fancy the prospect of conceding a large first-innings lead, but they came out with the express intention to put safety first, and inched towards the Sri Lankan total.

The day began with Pakistan openers Shan Masood and Sami Aslam - batting together for the first time - putting together 114 runs for the first wicket, both openers scoring half-centuries on a slow surface that showed few signs of springing to life, and Pakistan's batsmen worked their way through the innings the same way their Sri Lankan counterparts had done over the Test's first two days.

It wasn't until the tail-end of the morning session, however, that something of note happened. The few dozen spectators in the ground might have dozed off for the lack of action in the morning - besides a Masood dropped catch and the odd elegant drive, the session was lacking in animation. But out of nowhere, Perera got one to keep low as Aslam moved on to the back foot, helpless as it hit him on the pad in line of the stumps. His review wasn't successful. Two balls later, Azhar looked to have met the same fate as the umpire gave him out, but was saved by an inside edge so faint even he didn't know he'd hit it.

Masood spent the next few overs being worked over by Herath and Perera, suddenly beginning to look uncomfortable every ball. The odd one exploded from a crack as Masood began to play across the line and shuffle in the crease, clearly having lost some of his composure. That was in evidence even in the way he was dismissed, moving across his stumps and attempting an ugly sweep off Herath that crashed into his leg stump.

The bowlers continued to toil under the blazing desert heat as Azhar and Asad Shafiq steadied the Pakistan innings after lunch. There was some encouragement for Sri Lanka's fast bowlers this session, even if none of it translated into wickets. Nuwan Pradeep, in particular, found some reverse swing, and bowled a menacing enough line to ensure Azhar and Shafiq didn't get too comfortable.

However, since the batsmen showed no interest in attacking the bowlers, it was a session that crawled along dutifully, the loudest applause heard when a dabbed single to midwicket from Azhar brought up 5,000 Test runs for the former Pakistan ODI captain. It didn't help Sri Lanka's cause that the crease was occupied by the two Pakistan batsmen best equipped for the sort of gritty, laborious work required of them.

New life might have been breathed into Sri Lanka when Herath snared Shafiq two overs into the final session, the right-hander poking at one and only succeeding in edging to first slip. The incoming Babar Azam didn't stray from the game plan either, dutifully ensuring the scoring of runs didn't register high on his priority list. Long before the day looked to be whimpering to a close, the bowlers long seemed to have given up on summoning any intensity for the final push, and when Babar's wicket did come, it was a gift from the batsman. On a bracing day of Test cricket, it might have given Sri Lanka a lift, but both sides have significant work to do before they can think about forcing a result.

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