DUBAI // When both sides end a day feeling happy, the strongest suspicion is that a crackerjack finish may lie in prospect. The third day of the second Test between Pakistan and Sri Lanka at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium ended poised with precisely that sense.
On balance of the day, Sri Lanka should be the slightly happier; at lunch, Pakistan were 373 for six, with Asad Shafiq and Adnan Akmal in the midst of a peppy stand that had seized momentum from a good Sri Lankan start.
A big lead, of 200-plus, looked inevitable. Yet the tourists fought back with such purpose that Pakistan were gone an hour after lunch, having added only 30 more.
They then survived a session and a half of intense bowling and a surface on which the ball spat its way at the batsmen. Only one wicket fell, though some more might have, as Kumar Sangakkara and Tharanga Paranavitana chiselled a lead of 164 down to 76.
"The partnership really helped us to get back into the game," said Suranga Lakmal, the Sri Lanka bowler. "Tomorrow [today] with the partnership continuing and with our batsmen to come, we're in a good position to make an impact."
Yet, on balance of the entire Test, Pakistan can still sit back confident that the game remains there's to lose, even if that is an equation they are good at messing up. The lead was not as large as they wanted but as the surface began to liven up, they can foresee chasing a not-too-large total batting last.
Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman and Mohammad Hafeez, Pakistan's troika of spinners, created enough moments of genuine tension to suggest one wicket may bring a few more.
"The pitch is helping spinners now," said Shafiq. "There is a fair chance that we can get them out for a small total and chase that down. In the next two days it should help spinners more because the bounce is uneven."
Shafiq's third Test fifty was, for fluency, the innings of the day and in stark contrast to the vigils of Sangakkara and Paranavitana. Once he had launched Rangana Herath for a dancing six down the ground, he opened up with a collection of fine boundaries, driven and cut.
Most impressive in a 70-run stand with Akmal was the pair's running, stealing singles with an urgency no Pakistan pair has shown in the series so far. After the wickets of Misbah-ul-Haq and nightwatchman Ajmal in the morning, the partnership was a vital one, one swing of momentum on a day in which it swung throughout.
In the longer term, it was a further sign that Pakistan's middle-order batting stocks, like those of fast bowling, have a way of regenerating themselves. The age of Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan has ended; Azhar Ali, Shafiq and eventually Umar Akmal are most likely to begin another.
In the shorter term, Shafiq is hoping not to bat again. Sri Lanka played down the breaking up of the pitch and believe they can set Pakistan a target of 200-plus.
"When it comes to the fourth day, the wicket gets roughed up anyway from bowlers' footmarks and that is something batsmen have to expect," said Sri Lanka's Chanaka Welegedara. "Our batsmen are quite capable of combating that situation."
What total - if any - will be safe to chase in the last innings? Given Pakistan's nervousness at chasing any total small or large, the nature of the surface and Herath's left-arm spin, 150 gives the game potentially its most exciting conclusion.
"If we get a lead of 225-250 and set Pakistan 50 overs or so to get that, we may be in with a chance to turn this around in our favour," said Welegedara.
The assessment seems both overtly optimistic and excessive.