Pakistan, Sri Lanka resume bout without heavyweights

Angelo Mathews was given out lbw by umpire Richard Illingworth
Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Abu Dhabi September 27, 2017

Big Picture

Is there a fixture in Test cricket that is as neighbourly, as peaceable, quite as friction-free, as a series between Pakistan and Sri Lanka? No two sets of fans are likelier to party together. In fact, following these teams' most-recent meeting in the Champions Trophy, hordes of Pakistan supporters were seen boogieing to papare outside the ground, at Cardiff. At a time when online exchanges are becoming ever spikier, there is between these supporters, a warm, fuzzy bonhomie.

Some of this is mutual understanding. Like Sri Lanka's, Pakistan's domestic system is thought to be too bloated. Like Pakistan's, Sri Lanka's cricket administration is reliably counterproductive. And which two other nations are likelier to breed the kinds of bowling oddities that Sri Lanka and Pakistan have produced? To recount the history of the doosra (and it is a history now), you need not really look beyond cricketers from Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Two of the most delicious World Cup campaigns have belonged to them as well.

The parallels are even stronger in this series. Pakistan step forth here, for the first time, without Misbah-Ul-Haq and Younis Khan. No team better knows the challenge of replacing a pair of juggernaut batsmen better than Sri Lanka. And if Sri Lanka's plight over the last three years is anything to go by, it is not merely on the field that Pakistan will have to contend with their absence. Like Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, Misbah and Younis were each more institution than individual - virtually comprising a two-man finishing school for young players. New entrants into the Pakistan side are likely to keenly feel the absence of that support, as many Sri Lanka batsmen clearly have. Additionally, there are two fewer experienced hands when it comes to the regular business of putting out fires started by the administration.

There is no doubt that Pakistan are favourites here. Not only are they playing at familiar venues, but they are also, on paper, the stronger side. More crucially, and despite the contentions of their interim coach, Sri Lanka's morale has taken an almighty pounding in 2017. Never in this century have Sri Lanka's public been so disgruntled by their cricket team.

But regardless of what state the teams had entered previous series, contests between these two sides have rarely failed to be compelling. The twilight finish at Sharjah, their two matches at Galle, and the Younis led Pallekele chase in 2015 produced some of the most memorable Test moments of the past four years.

Sri Lanka desperately need a lift, Pakistan require a gentle transition. With any luck, they will be well-matched again.

Form guide

Sri Lanka LLLWL (completed matches, most recent first)

Pakistan WLWLL

In the spotlight

No bona fide batting greats remain in either team, but in 22-year-olds Kusal Mendis and Babar Azam, two potential stars are honing their considerable talents in the top order. Mendis produced a dustbowl special at the SSC against India, but in between his high-quality hundreds (of which he has three now), he has been a little reckless, hitting unnecessarily into the air, or venturing overambitious shots against the turn, to bring promising innings' to an end. Babar's problem has been a little different. In Tests, he has recently struggled at the very beginning of his innings. He has hit two half-centuries this year, but has also collected four ducks in the space of eight innings, and been dismissed for nine on another occasion. A likely move down to No. 5 may alleviate this issue.

Dinesh Chandimal has officially led Sri Lanka in three Tests, but like for Sarfraz Ahmed this will be the first full series in which he will be in charge (Chandimal had missed a Test of the India series with pneumonia, and the Zimbabwe Test was a one-off). Sarfraz has quite the act to follow, taking over from Pakistan's most successful captain, but has the more settled and penetrative attack to marshal, and has already earned some goodwill as a leader via the Champions Trophy triumph. Chandimal's plight is a little more problematic. Not only has he overseen two demoralising defeats recently, he is also missing his best batsman - Angelo Mathews, and another potential matchwinner in Asela Gunaratne.

Team news

With Azhar Ali likely to come in at No. 3, Shafiq set to leap up to No. 4, and Babar moving to No. 5, Pakistan's top order will be shaken up. Sami Aslam and Haris Sohail will probably be the two batsmen replacing Misbah and Younis, though they will bat in different positions.

Pakistan (possible): 1 Shan Masood, 2 Sami Aslam, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Asad Shafiq, 5 Babar Azam, 6 Haris Sohail, 7 Sarfraz Ahmed (wk and capt.), 8 Mohammad Amir, 9 Yasir Shah, 10 Hasan Ali, 11 Mohammad Abbas

Sri Lanka will have to choose between Kaushal Silva and uncapped Sadeera Samarawickrama as they seek an opener to replace the unavailable Upul Tharanga. Samarawickrama has been in better domestic form, and perhaps deserves to play the first Test, but the selectors will worry that with Roshen Silva also likely to debut down the order, there will be too many inexperienced batsmen in the XI. Though Dilruwan Perera has been in good batting form, Lakshan Sandakan's wicket-taking potential should see him play as the second spinner.

Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Dimuth Karunaratne 2 Sadeera Samarawickrama, 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Dinesh Chandimal (capt.), 5 Lahiru Thirimanne, 6 Niroshan Dickwella (wk) 7 Roshen Silva 8 Rangana Herath, 9 Suranga Lakmal, 10 Lakshan Sandakan, 11 Nuwan Pradeep

Pitch and conditions

A little grass was seen on the surface on the eve of the match, which may see it hold together until late in the match. Abu Dhabi's heat and humidity will also make for testing playing conditions.

Stats and trivia

  • These teams have played 14 Tests against each other this decade - a rarity for non Big 3 fixtures. Sri Lanka has won five matches and Pakistan four.

  • Rangana Herath has generally enjoyed playing against Pakistan, but not so much in the UAE. His 24 wickets there have come at 36.20 apiece.

  • Azhar Ali is 32 runs short of becoming the eighth Pakistan batsman to 5000 Test runs. Even if he gets there in the first innings, at least three other Pakistan batsmen would have been quicker to the milestone, however.

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