While cricket boards slink around wooing the moneyed and coaxing promises of bilateral tours for the new Future Tours Programme, Pakistan and Sri Lanka raise the curtain on the Asia Cup knowing fixtures between the two nations may soon become more common.
They already play each other plenty, but having risked ostracisation from cricket’s oligarchy at the Singapore meeting, they may find other nations anxious about designing tours with either of them. In short: Sri Lanka v Pakistan could be the new Sri Lanka v India.
But at least if that transpires, the limited-overs encounters may produce good contests. Pakistan won the December ODI series 3-2, but three of those matches featured close finishes. In Bangladesh, the teams appear well-matched again.
Pakistan, as ever, have the better bowling side. Junaid Khan likes taking Sri Lankan wickets so much, he almost bursts a facial vein every time he does it. Sri Lanka had picked Saeed Ajmal apart during the January Tests, but he had been characteristically effective in the ODI series, as had Umar Gul.
Sri Lanka matches even appear to bring the grown-up out from behind Shahid Afridi’s lustrous beard and resplendently disastrous strokemaking. In the last series, he was almost consistent across two disciplines.
Sri Lanka have the better batting unit. As Tillakaratne Dilshan nurses an injured hand at home, the universe has hinted for the umpteenth time that Mahela Jayawardene should open for Sri Lanka, as both he and the team benefit from his promotion up the order.
Kusal Perera has begun to move beyond the Sanath Jayasuriya-shaped shadow his career was forged in, and the middle order has mostly been effective in their two most-recent matches.
The key to the outcome in Fatullah may be whether either team can leverage close knowledge of each other’s cricket. Can Pakistan continue to subdue recent-centurion Kumar Sangakkara in the same manner they had done in the UAE tour? Have Sri Lanka come upon a ploy to thwart the suddenly-monstrous Pakistan top order they had encountered in the last series? The tournament is set to be played at a breakneck pace, and a first-up victory may mean more than most.
(last five matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: WWWWL
In the spotlight
Sohaib Maqsood’s busy knocks had helped Pakistan consolidate their innings in the UAE, as he rotated the strike effectively against the likes of Sachithra Senanayake, and struck large, leg-side boundaries to entrench his team’s dominance in several of those matches. Sri Lanka are again missing Rangana Herath – the bowler who often exerts control during the middle-overs – and Maqsood will hope to sustain his success in that period.
Thisara Perera had such a poor tour of the UAE, he was denied permission to go to the Big Bash League and was asked instead to train with Sri Lanka’s A team. A little tough love from the selectors appears to have done him good. His unbeaten 80 in the first ODI against Bangladesh led Sri Lanka’s remarkable resurgence in that match, but Thisara will want to limit the troughs in his career.
Having had some time in limited-overs tournaments at home, Pakistan return to internationals with much the same squad that took on Sri Lanka in the UAE. Fawad Alam is one surprise inclusion, but he is unlikely to play in the tournament opener. Bilawal Bhatti and Anwar Ali compete for the third seamer’s position.
1 Sharjeel Khan, 2 Ahmed Shehzad, 3 Mohammad Hafeez, 4 Sohaib Maqsood, 5 Misbah-Ul-Haq (capt.), 6 Umar Akmal (wk), 7 Shahid Afridi, 8 Bilawal Bhatti/Anwar Ali, 9 Umar Gul, 10 Saeed Ajmal, 11 Junaid Khan
Two senior Sri Lanka bowlers – Herath and Nuwan Kulasekara – are unavailable, leaving the attack in less-experienced hands. Lasith Malinga and Sangakkara will return after having been rested for the third Bangladesh ODI, and Ashan Priyanjan is likely to assume a place in the middle-order.
Sri Lanka (probable):
1 Kusal Perera, 2 Mahela Jayawardene, 3 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 4 Dinesh Chandimal, 5 Ashan Priyanjan, 6 Angelo Mathews (capt.), 7 Thisara Perera, 8 Sachithra Senanayake, 9 Lasith Malinga, 10 Ajantha Mendis, 11 Suranga Lakmal
Stats and trivia
Mohammad Hafeez hit 448 runs at 149.33 in the UAE series against Sri Lanka
Misbah-ul-Haq has hit seven 50-plus scores in his last nine international innings
Mahela Jayawardene averages 44.8 and strikes at 91 when opening (32 innings). His career average and strike rate are 33.3 and 78.