If familiarity breeds contempt, no one told Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The teams now embark on their seventh bilateral series in as many years, and as Ahmer Naqvi says, this relationship has the hallmarks of an arranged marriage and there is genuine warmth there too. Perhaps no two boards back each other quite as unequivocally at the ICC table. SLC chairman Sidath Wettimuny has made two trips to Pakistan in the last month alone.
Yet for all the mutual back-scratching, Pakistan’s most successful Test captain is yet to win a match on the island. Pakistan’s last three Test series in Sri Lanka have brought results of 0-2 (2009), 0-1 (2012) and 0-2 (2014). With Sri Lanka in heavy transition, and Kumar Sangakkara likely to play only the first two Tests, Misbah-ul-Haq might feel this is his best chance yet to win a game here – maybe even a series.
Pakistan are in something of a transition too, but having had more cricket in recent months, their side feels better meshed. Greater responsibility has settled well on Azhar Ali’s shoulders, and Yasir Shah is marching quickly towards a menacing Test record. Wahab Riaz and Junaid Khan have tasted success in Sri Lanka as well.
The hosts have plenty of batsmen pressing for a middle-order place. Kusal Perera’s four brisk centuries and two fifties against Pakistan A make him the likeliest option, but Kithuruwan Vithanage waits in the wings, and a reinvented Jehan Mubarak is back for another crack at the top level. Injuries to the two frontline quicks have opened up opportunities for seamers more often seen in away Tests, as well.
Neither captain is renowned for attacking play, though Angelo Mathews has taken small steps away from the safety-first outlook that defined the early months of his captaincy. How he does in his first home series without Mahela Jayawardene’s support may give clues to his development as a strategist. As ever, the Galle Test should ease the hosts into the series, with several key batsmen and bowlers often at their peak at this venue.
(last five matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: LLWWD
In the spotlight
Lahiru Thirimanne has progressed nicely in ODI cricket, having had a good World Cup, but his Test average languishes at 26.70. It would be worse still if not for a 155 not out against Bangladesh on the flattest Galle track seen in recent years. His modest Test returns seem like an anomaly, because he has the temperament to flourish in the long format. Groomed for a while now to take up Sangakkara’s No. 3 spot, he will have to increase his output dramatically to be an adequate replacement.
Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar have stepped up over the months to cover the absence of Saeed Ajmal. The left-arm spinner and wrist spinner combination will have an important contribution to make. Both of them had a decent practice match in Colombo, with Babar taking 6 for 31 while Shah picked up two at a decent economy rate.
Kusal looks likeliest to bat at No. 6, with Dinesh Chandimal taking the gloves and batting at No. 7. Sri Lanka may also be tempted to play 22-year-old offspinner Tharindu Kaushal who, with his flight and variation, may be an effective foil for Rangana Herath.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Kaushal Silva, 2 Dimuth Karunaratne, 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Lahiru Thirimanne, 5 Angelo Mathews (capt.), 6 Kusal Perera, 7 Dinesh Chandimal (wk), 8 Dhammika Prasad, 9 Tharindu Kaushal/ Dilruwan Perera, 10 Rangana Herath, 11 Nuwan Pradeep
Pakistan had thought about flying in Rahat Ali for this match, but opted not to strain him so soon after a hamstring injury. Their attack is likely to contain three left-arm bowlers.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Ahmed Shehzad, 2 Mohammad Hafeez, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Younis Khan, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq (capt.), 6 Asad Shafiq, 7 Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), 8 Wahab Riaz, 9 Junaid Khan, 10 Yasir Shah, 11 Zulfiqar Babar
Pitch and conditions
There appeared to be a hint of live grass on the Galle track on the eve of the match, which may mean it plays flat for the first two days. Plenty happens in the back end of most Galle Tests though, so expect the sea breeze to dry the track up nicely for the second innings.
Galle has been getting daily rains, but these have mostly been restricted to night-time hours. The occasional interruption can be expected, however.
Stats and trivia
- Kumar Sangakkara needs one more double-ton to equal Don Bradman’s record of 12. He already has three such scores against Pakistan.
- Rangana Herath needs 12 more scalps to become the first bowler to take 100 wickets against Pakistan, surpassing Kapil Dev’s 99 wickets.
- Younis Khan has seven hundreds against Sri Lanka – his highest against any opposition, although he has also played the most Tests against them.
“Saeed Ajmal hasn’t been picked, but we know they’ve got some excellent bowlers, so it’s no different from your usual, strong Pakistan attack.”
Angelo Mathews on facing the Pakistan bowling
“It’s very important for us to deal with the spin on this tour to get the best result.”
Misbah-ul-Haq on the significance of handling spin well