Ajmal’s return buoys Pakistan as ODI series decider today

DAMBULLA: A gap of three days between games can sometimes be a luxury in the manic schedule of an international cricketer. For Pakistan, the break and the ensuing change of scenery as the series shifts to Dambulla, is a chance to process the implosion in Hambantota. Their collapse gave Sri Lanka another shot at remedying an average record of ODI series wins at home.
For Pakistan, the series so far has been a tale of two chases, similar in their setting but vastly different in outcome - the first, conjured from thin air by Fawad Alam and Sohaib Maqsood, the second blown up in smoke by Sri Lanka’s spinners on a helpful track. But the second ODI in Hambantota wasn’t just about the batting collapse. The Saeed Ajmal-sized hole in the Pakistan line-up could not be filled by the bowlers, especially towards the end of Sri Lanka’s innings and Misbahul Haq will know that the game slipped away from the side over the course of a mere 18 overs with the bat and in the field.
While Sri Lanka were batting, Pakistan gave away 101 runs in the final ten overs and during their chase, went from 192-4 to 233 all out in just eight overs. Pakistan, however, will be boosted by the return of Ajmal after his bowling action was tested in Brisbane, and may drop a fast bowler to accommodate him. However, it is the need to find consistency in the batting line-up that will be Pakistan’s biggest challenge.
Despite having levelled the series, Sri Lanka have their own set of glaring problems. The failures of Tillakaratne Dilshan and Upul Tharanga - who have stands of 18 and 14 - have been masked by the fluency Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews’ remarkable form in the middle order. Lasith Malinga’s yorkers haven’t been as effective as they usually are and Nuwan Kulasekara, although marginally economical than Malinga, is still wicket-less.
In the spotlight: The lack of form of the fast-bowling attack has been one of the biggest concerns for Sri Lanka in this series. Kulasekara (6.15 runs per over) and Malinga (7.32) have been expensive so far in the series and the pair have just three wickets between them. Kulasekara has not picked up a wicket in seven matches since May 2014. Sri Lanka’s spinners, who now carry the chunk of the responsibility, have been given some relief by Mathews and Thisara Perera but the fast bowlers will still need to step up.
Saeed Ajmal has spent most of the last week getting his action tested in Brisbane. That he will play on Saturday is almost certain, especially after Misbahul Haq’s statement that the side had missed the bowler on the turning track at Hambantota, especially in the power-plays and towards the end of the innings. There will be added scrutiny on his action and on how he has coped with the doubts over his game. Ajmal was last reported for a suspect action in April 2009 in the middle of an ODI series with Australia in the UAE. While he was cleared a month later, the bowler kept up his miserly form for the rest of the matches, with figures of 0-42 (in nine overs), 0-20 and 1-40 (10 overs).
Sri Lanka are likely to stick with their misfiring opening combination and may field the same XI from Hambantota. With Ajmal returning to the side, Pakistan may opt to drop either Junaid Khan or Mohammad Irfan. Sharjeel Khan, who replaced Younis Khan in the batting line-up, is likely to keep his place.
Probable squads: 
Sri Lanka: Upul Tharanga, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara (wk), Mahela Jayawardene, Angelo Mathews (capt), Ashan Priyanjan, Seekkuge Prasanna, Thisara Perara, Nuwan Kulasekara, Lasith Malinga, Rangana Herath/Suraj Randiv.
Pakistan: Ahmed Shehzad, Sharjeel Khan, Mohammad Hafeez, Umar Akmal (wk), Misbahul Haq (capt), Fawad Alam, Sohaib Maqsood, Shahid Afridi, Saeed Ajmal, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Irfan/Junaid Khan. 

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