ABU DHABI: Appetisers devoured, entrées done, the tour arrives at its main course with fans’ appetites well whetted. Five of the seven limited-overs matches have been good contests, and the cricket has largely been absorbing. Sri Lanka have won fewer matches, but they are now boosted by the return of their primary Test match-winner in Rangana Herath, and their best batsman against spin in Mahela Jayawardene. Still, in the UAE, Pakistan hold the pre-series aces. Sri Lanka have not only had no Tests since March, they have also foregone the practice matches that are so often the bedrock of successful foreign expeditions. Three clear days between the last ODI and the first day of the Test only exacerbate their challenge.
Pakistan are also at a clear advantage in another area – though they are missing Mohammad Irfan for this series, their pace attack is venomous where Sri Lanka’s is only doughty. No bowler in Sri Lanka’s 16-man squad is Junaid Khan’s equal, and although Umar Gul has a mediocre record against Sri Lanka, the reverse-swing he gleans on dry pitches may prove potent against the visitors’ inexperienced middle order. In comparison, Suranga Lakmal has never taken more than four wickets in a match and averages 65.75, while Shaminda Eranga has been far from his best in domestic cricket over the past two months. Pakistan possess two wizened pillars of their own. Younis Khan struggled against South Africa’s attack, but will likely find Sri Lanka’s bowlers a friendlier challenge, while it is probably harder for Misbahul Haq, on present form, not to cross fifty on a trip to the crease. Pakistan’s young batsmen, like Sri Lanka’s, have plenty to gain from the series, but some also have much to lose.
Where Sri Lanka will hope to make the most ground on their opposition is in the top order. Kumar Sangakkara averages a staggering 89.23 in 31 innings against Pakistan, and if Saeed Ajmal has a kryptonite, Sangakkara is his glowing, green nightmare. In Sangakkara’s last six innings in the UAE, he has hit a double-ton, a century and two fifties. When the teams last met for a three-Test series in Sri Lanka in June 2012, Sangakkara hit 490 runs at an average of 163.3. Jayawardene has had less success against Pakistan and is clearly short of match practice, as he arrives from an extended personal leave, but he is hungry to push his Test average beyond 50 once more and has the technique to prosper in the UAE. With a slew of inexperienced batsmen around them, Sri Lanka’s juggernauts may have to be the engine room of the team’s innings as the youngsters ease back into Test cricket.
The Rangana Herath v Saeed Ajmal dynamic has already been played down by the teams, but, with two of the finest spinners in the world about to play on responsive surfaces, it is the most exciting head-to-head of the tour. The last time they played in the same series, they ended up as the top wicket-takers, with the same number of wickets. Herath had the better average and economy rate, but Ajmal struck in fewer deliveries. The Sri Lankan spinner weaves a web and waits for his prey to entangle themselves in it, while the Pakistan bowler steals close and pounces. It is a collision of slow-bowling philosophies, and it has the potential to be the defining factor in the series.
Pakistan’s combination is less sure. Mohammad Hafeez’s Test average in the last year is 10.2, but given his incredible success in the ODI series, the team management will struggle to leave him out of the Tests. They may include him at the expense of opener Shan Masood, though they may also have Hafeez arriving at No.3 instead of Azhar Ali. Either way, each of the possible openers for both sides has an opportunity to embed themselves in Tests over the following weeks. Apart from the Hafeez/Masood/Azhar tussle, Pakistan’s XI may be fairly settled. If Hafeez does play, he may allow Pakistan to play either an extra batsman, or perhaps, a young fast bowler in place of the second frontline spinner.
Sri Lanka’s batting seems stable, but apart from Herath, the bowling is less settled. Dilruwan Perera may have a minute edge over fellow offspinner Sachithra Senanayake, but either way, one of them seems set to make their Test debut on Tuesday. Quick and aggressive Nuwan Pradeep would add edge to the attack, but Shaminda Eranga and Suranga Lakmal are the more reliable bowlers. Sri Lanka will likely choose two out of the three. There is also a chance Prasanna Jayawardene might push Lahiru Thirimanne out of the side, taking the gloves in the process. The ankle injury Thirimanne sustained during the ODI series may also play a part in keeping him out.
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