HAMBANTOTA: The locals in Sri Lanka’s southeast had been hoping for heavy rains to rejuvenate their crops and refill their wells. The rain though, has been in Colombo. Hambantota gets extra cricket instead. Given Sri Lanka have now lost three on the trot at the venue that may not be much of a condolence prize. Sri Lanka is often thought of as a tough team to beat at home, particularly in limited-overs cricket. But since 2006, they have lost seven bilateral ODI series at home to the six they have won. In the last two years, they have also drawn against New Zealand and Bangladesh.
Pakistan now have the chance to inflict a successive ODI series loss on the hosts, after South Africa beat them 2-1 last month. Angelo Mathews already has one eye trained on the World Cup, and had said he would experiment with Sri Lanka’s combination in this series. But he will be tempted to shelve those ambitions for now, and pick his strongest team. Pakistan, meanwhile, are out to get silverware out of this tour. They had seemed sunk on Saturday until two batsmen with fewer than 50 ODIs between them put on a partnership worthy of seasoned one-day cricketers. Perhaps the wisest thing about their 147-run stand was that neither batsman seemed keen to rely on Shahid Afridi.
Saturday’s was the kind of win that fills a batting unit with confidence. If they can win a chase from five down, 160 adrift and the required rate touching seven an over, they might feel anything is possible. Moreover, Misbahul Haq now seems to have some level-headed company in the middle order. They will be without their other middle-order anchor though, with Younus Khan returning home due to personal reasons. They will also need to make do without ace spinner Saeed Ajmal for one more match, but even without him, the bowling and batting appears to have the depth and variety to deal with whatever the temperamental Hambantota venue serves up on Tuesday.
In the spotlight: Upul Tharanga’s reintroduction to the top teams has been well-earned, but he is still working on locking down a place in both the ODI and Test teams. He top scored in the Test victory at SSC, but the edginess outside off stump that has always been his bane has not yet been fully dealt with. There is now competition for opening spots, across all formats. If Tharanga wants a place in Sri Lanka’s World Cup side, he will need consistent scores.
Sohaib Maqsood was the star of Saturday’s chase, but alongside him for much of his innings was Fawad Alam who has begun to carve a niche for himself as the busy engine-room batsman in Pakistan’s middle order. There is nothing eye-catching about Alam’s batting, except an ability to find gaps, and an opportunistic streak that sees him squeeze out runs when most would see none there. He has a bandit’s beard and hairstyle, to match his style of play. Alam has crossed 50 in all his three ODIs this year, and an average of 47.38 after 28 innings suggests Pakistan unearthed something valuable.
The only place in Sri Lanka’s top order that does not seem settled is the Dinesh Chandimal-Lahiru Thirimanne spot. Elsewhere, Sri Lanka may be tempted to bring in offspinner Suraj Randiv, if only to prevent Rangana Herath from disintegrating into the molecules that comprise him, given his workload this year. In Younus Khan’s absence, Sharjeel Khan and Ahmed Shehzad will open, while Mohammad Hafeez will be pushed down to No.3.
Sri Lanka: Upul Tharanga, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara (wk), Mahela Jayawardene, Lahiru Thirimanne/Dinesh Chandimal, Angelo Mathews (capt), Ashan Priyanjan, Thisara Perera, Rangana Herath, Nuwan Kulasekara, Lasith Malinga.
Pakistan: Sharjeel Khan, Ahmed Shehzad, Mohammad Hafeez, Umar Akmal (wk), Misbahul Haq (capt), Fawad Alam, Sohaib Maqsood, Shahid Afridi, Wahab Riaz, Junaid Khan, Mohammad Irfan.
DUBAI: Embattled Pakistan opener Ahmad Shahzad finally found some form, hammering 71 off 46 balls ...