Monday, December 30, 2013

Key battles - Pakistan vs Sri Lanka Test Series

After the conclusion of an entertaining limited-overs leg, Pakistan host Sri Lanka in a crucial test series in the UAE. Pakistan finished 2013 without a series win in test cricket, while Sri Lanka hardly played any test cricket at all in a year highlighted by the administrative foibles of their cricket board. Both teams will want better returns in the long form in the new year, and these three tests provide a great opportunity for both teams to set the right tone ahead of a busy first quarter in 2014. Pakistan start the series as favourites with the dual advantage of having an unblemished series record in the UAE as well as the momentum carried forward by a comfortable series victory in the ODI’s. Nonetheless, one can’t take Sri Lanka for granted, and like most test series the winners will be determined by the result of some key battles, which I highlight below.

Can Sri Lanka’s batting stalwarts hold the fort?

In the aftermath of Tillakaratne Dilshan’s retirement from test cricket, Sri Lanka will open the batting in the first test at Abu Dhabi with Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva. Sorry ... who again? Unfortunately, I can’t provide much of an answer other than cricinfo’s unparalleled database of stats revealing the former to have an average of 25 and the latter an average of 14. At the risk of tempting fate, I think the probability of either surviving Pakistan’s new ball attack of Junaid Khan and Umar Gul ranges from slim to none.

Consequently the onus will be on the two modern greats of Sri Lankan batting to hold the fort. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene will be called to draw upon their vast reserves of experience in tough situations. It’s highly likely that one or both will come to the crease with ball still new. Not only will they have to see off the threat of Junaid, but also ensure survival against Pakistan’s twin spin threat of the effervescent Saeed Ajmal and the underrated Abdur Rehman. With a batting line-up limited in test cricket experience, Sangakkara and Jayawardene cannot afford to fail or Sri Lanka’s shot at winning the series will escalate from improbable to impossible.

What about Pakistan’s middle order stalwarts?

Like their Sri Lankan counterparts, Pakistan also go into Abu Dhabi with an inexperienced pair of openers. Khurram Manzoor and Shan Masood average 31 and 24 respectively, although in Masood’s defence his two tests have been against South Africa’s fearsome new ball attack. The duo will also have the benefit of facing fast bowlers who are nowhere close to possessing the threat of Junaid and Gul. Nonetheless, the verdict is out on the openers at this moment in time.

There is a debate surrounding the number 3 spot in the team, with a match day decision expected between Mohammed Hafeez and Azhar Ali. Both, Hafeez and Azhar had horrendous years in test cricket, and regardless of who gets the start, Pakistan can’t rely on either to provide the solidity.

If Pakistan are to get commanding totals in the series, one can’t avoid the feeling that both Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq will have to come up with big knocks. Younis will keen to make a point after failing against South Africa, and in an ideal world he should make hay against Sri Lanka’s average attack. Misbah was clearly Pakistan’s standout batsman in 2013. The captain is one of the best players at judging a match situation, and whether he arrives at the crease with Pakistan needing to consolidate or to go for the jugular, Misbah can be counted on to deliver with the bat. Misbah and Younis will also be relied upon to negate Rangana Herath, whose wiles have been too much for Pakistan’s other batsmen in the recent past.

Can Herath shoulder Sri Lanka’s bowling burden?

That Sri Lanka have won test matches after the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan is single-handedly down to the bowling efforts of Rangana Herath. The left-arm spinner would surely get more recognition in the wider cricket community if Sri Lanka played more test cricket. 200 test wickets at 29 is an excellent average, and Herath has bamboozled some of the best batting line-ups in leading Sri Lanka to significant victories over England and South Africa in 2012. Worryingly for Sri Lanka, the rest of the bowlers in the squad have a combined total of 34 test wickets. Even against a Pakistani batting line-up that couldn’t hold Zimbabwe’s attack at bay, Sri Lanka are going to struggle to take 20 wickets if Herath’s threat is negated.

Will Ajmal’s ‘teesra’ make a difference?

That Saeed Ajmal is going to be Pakistan’s most potent bowling weapon in this series is an understatement. Ajmal’s sheer variety has bamboozled the best batsmen in conditions all over the world. In the UAE, Ajmal not only takes wickets but he is also good at drying the flow of runs for opposing batsmen. That being said, Pakistan’s bowling in the desert becomes even more dangerous when Ajmal has a supporting act twirling away in tandem with him. During Pakistan’s momentous 3-0 whitewash of England in 2012, Abdur Rehman’s excellent controlled spin was given the moniker of Ajmal’s ‘teesra’. If the fifth one-day between the teams is anything to go by, Rehman is also equally capable of beguiling Sri Lanka’s best batsmen. If Ajmal and Rehman combine well together, it could end up being the difference between a close series and a comprehensive win for the hosts.

Can the lower middle order contribute?

Whether it be the inexperience of Sri Lanka’s batting or the sheer ineptitude of Pakistan’s efforts with the willow, it’s quite likely that the lower middle orders of both teams will be called upon to manage crises a few times in the series. With both tails verging on the hopeless, the contributions - made by Asad Shafiq and Adnan Akmal for Pakistan, or Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal for Sri Lanka - could be the difference between the teams being bundled out for embarrassing scores or ending up with a respectable total. Technically Mathews and Chandimal are clearly superior. However, Shafiq and Akmal are probably better at changing the course of a game with their aggression. The pair that performs better could end up making a decisive contribution in the series.
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