Depleted attacks face off in series opener

HAMBANTOTA: Pakistan’s rustiness was a major talking point ahead of the Test series, and it could be an issue before the first ODI as well. Pakistan’s last 50-over match was the Asia Cup final in March. They lost that game, the second time they had lost to Sri Lanka in a tournament where they had beaten everyone else. They were both matches Pakistan could have won, but Sri Lanka showed a clear edge when it came to handling the pressure moments.

It is an issue Pakistan will want to address before the World Cup, and the return of Younis Khan seems a step in that direction. What this will do, though, is disturb a middle-order combination that doesn’t seem to require too much tinkering. Pakistan have a decent set of batsmen in the ODI format, with a group of younger players – Ahmed Shehzad, Umar Akmal and Fawad Alam, who scored a terrific century in the Asia Cup final – settling in nicely among the more experienced names.

Younis’ inclusion, in fact, could push either Sharjeel Khan or Sohaib Maqsood, or both, out of the eleven, and this is a sign of a team trying to arrive at its best possible batting combination. It isn’t the worst problem for Pakistan to face. A bigger worry is batting depth. Shahid Afridi batted at No. 7 during the Asia Cup, and while he pulled out a couple of blinders, it still seems a risky ploy. Pakistan themselves seem to think so, judging by the fact that they played an extra batsman – Maqsood – at seven during their warm-up match in Moratuwa. Pakistan’s bowling is also a concern, without Saeed Ajmal, and potentially without Junaid Khan, the extent of whose recovery from concussion suffered during the second Test is as yet unknown. During the warm-up game against the Board President’s XI, the pace trio of Anwar Ali, Mohammad Talha and Wahab Riaz went for 186 runs in 26 overs. The batsmen who took Pakistan apart included Ashan Priyanjan and Thisara Perera, who both made half-centuries at over a run a ball. They might be vying for one place in Sri Lanka’s eleven at Hambantota, while Lahiru Thirimanne, who captained the Board President’s XI and scored a duck, is likely to play, considering he is Sri Lanka’s vice-captain.

Sri Lanka see a lot of long-term potential in Thirimanne, and he illustrated this with centuries in both matches against Pakistan during the Asia Cup. But his form since then, in all formats, has been worrying, and it is also an issue for them that he tends to bat much better in the top three than he does at No. 5 – which is where he has slotted in for most of his recent matches. Perhaps he could open in this series, in the absence of the injured Kusal Perera, but he will need to score runs, one way or another, to justify the faith Sri Lanka have shown in him.

Thirimanne is only part of Sri Lanka’s larger concern over their batting in the long-term, with Dinesh Chandimal also in the process of trying to re-establish his international career. Till the World Cup, though, they still have the services of the old firm of Dilshan, Sangakkara and Jayawardene. Agencies

Sri Lanka will need to sort out their bowling combination, however, particularly in the spin department. Sachithra Senanayake, whom they have depended on for economy over recent months, has been banned for an illegal bowling action, and the selectors still haven’t made up their minds on Ajantha Mendis, who is out of the squad now but could well be back before their next series. Rangana Herath tormented Pakistan in the Tests and is part of the ODI squad, but Sri Lanka will probably use him sparingly, to manage his workload. Whether Seekuge Prasanna and Suraj Randiv will allow that remains to be seen.

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