Pakistan spinners Saeed Ajmal and Abdul Rehman tied down Sri Lanka to 220-5 in the decisive third test on a grassless wicket at Sharjah Cricket Stadium on Thursday.
Ajmal took 2-62 and Rehman - one of the three changes Pakistan made after trailing 1-0 in the series - picked up 1-45 to keep Sri Lanka's progress in check on the first day.
"We have controlled them because there's little response from the pitch (for the batsmen), but our effort will be to dismiss them quickly tomorrow," Rehman said.
Kumar Sangakkara top scored with 52 off 103 balls, but was lucky to hit his 44th Test fifty when the umpire couldn't spot the left-hander had gloved the catch on 15.
Mahela Jayawardene, another experienced Sri Lanka batsman, made 47 off 108 balls before he fell to Ajmal in the last session as it was hard for the batsmen to pace their innings on a slow wicket.
Prasanna Jayawardene will resume on 28 while captain Angelo Mathews, who won the toss and elected to bat, was unbeaten on 24.
Both batsmen survived some tense moments in adding an unbeaten stand of 54 runs for the sixth wicket. Fast bowler Mohammad Talha - replacing Rahat Ali in the eleven - couldn't hold on to a difficult catch before Mathews had scored, and later the TV umpire upheld a not out decision against the Sri Lanka skipper off Rehman's appeal for lbw in the penultimate over of the day.
"It was a difficult catch but he (Talha) tried his best, it could have made the difference," Rehman said.
Prasanna also successfully managed to overturn Indian umpire Sundaram Ravi's lbw decision off Ajmal when on 19.
Ajmal, who had struggled in the previous two Test matches with only five wickets, bowled the bulk of the overs with Rehman and struck early in the last session.
He had Jayawardene caught close to the wicket off a big inside edge. Dinesh Chandimal (11) also couldn't read the 'doosra' - the ball which spun away from him - and got a leading edge and was caught at deep mid-on.
Pakistan did well to restrict Sri Lanka at 133-3 by tea despite Sangakkara and Jayawardene putting on 60 runs.
Rehman struck in the first over after lunch when Dimuth Karunaratne (34) played a loose drive and Younis Khan held on to a low catch in the slip before Sangakkara and Jayawardene rebuilt the innings.
Sangakkara reached his fifty off 101 balls with five fours when he elegantly drove Junaid Khan straight to the boundary but one ball later he flicked a simple catch to mid-wicket.
Earlier, Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva survived the first hour and put on 31 runs before Talha got the breakthrough immediately after he switched bowling ends by having Silva caught behind.
Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq brought in Ajmal in only the 10th over of the innings in a hope to get the early breakthrough after Khan and Talha could not extract any movement off the flat pitch.
Ajmal thought he had Karunaratne leg before wicket on 14 in his third over, but Pakistan wasted one of its two referrals when television umpire Bruce Oxenford upheld the onfield umpire's not out decision.
Karunaratne was unruffled by the short pitched deliveries but was lucky to get a top edged six off Khan as the left-hander opened up after a cautious start to his innings and guided Sri Lanka to 64-1 at lunch.
"We need to get some confidence on that track because it spins a bit and it's slow, that's why we've got 220 in the first day," Karunaratne said.
Pakistan brought in Rehman in place of the injured Bilawal Bhatti while fast bowler Talha got his second Test after nearly five years, replacing Rahat Ali.
Talha played his only previous Test against Sri Lanka in 2009 at Lahore, when gunmen attacked the visitors' team bus and killed six police officials and a van driver.
Pakistan also dropped Mohammad Hafeez, who scored only one half century in four innings, and brought in Azhar Ali for his first match of the series.
Sri Lanka awarded a test cap to 31-year-old Dilruwan Perera, who replaced fast bowler Nuwan Pradeep.