There was a time when cricket followers in this country got bored of witnessing Sri Lanka and India playing each other on umpteen numbers of occasions.
It looks as if it is the turn of Pakistan to play a similar role against Sri Lanka. The start of the three-Test series at Galle next Wednesday will be the sixth bilateral series between these two sides in six years and the third Test series in 18 months.
Their last Test series Pakistan lost 0-2 in Sri Lanka in mid 2014, where former captain Mahela Jayawardene marked his final Test appearance for his country at the SSC with a win.
Although this will not be the first time Sri Lanka are going into a series without Jayawardene, they are bound to feel his absence in the dressing room as well as on the field. He missed the 2013 Bangladesh Test series through injury but the most telling effect was last December in New Zealand where Sri Lanka were beaten 0-2. The upcoming series against Pakistan will be the second in the post-Jayawardene era.
Jayawardene’s absence from the Lankan batting line up gives an opportunity for one of the younger batsmen to cement a place in the senior team. The recently concluded ‘A’ series between the two countries has given enough food for thought to the national selectors who have included Kusal Perera and Kithuruwan Vithanage in their squad of 16 named for the series.
“We need to recognize current performances. We could not ignore Kusal and Kithuruwan who had a good series against Pakistan ‘A’,” said chief selector Kapila Wijegunawardene.
In fact Perera edged out another promising wicket-keeper/batsman Niroshan Dickwella on the strength of his performance against Pakistan ‘A’ where he averaged over 150 in the unofficial test and one-day series. Dickwella was unfortunate not to play in that series – a broken finger keeping him out.
There is also Dinesh Chandimal of proven quality who is leading a Sri Lanka Board President’s XI in the three-day warm-up game against Pakistan ahead of the Test series, to fill the shoes of Jayawardene. Chandimal will most probably take over the wicket-keeping position for this series thus enabling Sri Lanka to play an additional batsman. The number six or seven slot (depending on what position Chandimal bats) will be a three-cornered tussle with Vithanage, Perera and Jehan Mubarak all vying for it.
Chandimal batting so low down the order would also deprive Sri Lanka of utilizing the maximum of his batting talents.
“At the moment there is no long term plans for a wicket-keeper, Chandimal is likely to keep wickets with Kusal also in the running,” said Wijegunawardene, which meant that a player of Dickwella’s caliber still has a chance to return to the side in the near future.
With Sri Lanka having the luxury of so many wicket-keepers in their side – four in the present squad namely Chandimal, Perera, Sangakkara and Kaushal Silva, the selectors have overlooked experienced glovesman Prasanna Jayawardene.
Wijegunawardene said that Jayawardene has been given permission to play league cricket in England and was not available for selection. It seems with so many young players knocking on the door for the wicket-keeper’s position Jayawardene at 35 may have played his last Test for his country.
On Mubarak’s inclusion Wijegunawardene said, “We felt the value in experience without Mahela”.
It is not so much the batting that will be a worry for Sri Lanka but their bowling depth.
“Our batting is solid with a good blend of youth and experience. We need to blood youngsters progressively. Our main goal is to settle players to specific goals. Playing in all formats certain players have specific roles to play,” said Wijegunawardene.
Sri Lanka’s pace attack is not the most potent by any stretch of imagination, although they were responsible for a rare series win in England last year. In the past seven years the seam attack has revolved around Suranga Lakmal, Shaminda Eranga, Dhammika Prasad, Nuwan Pradeep and Chanaka Welegedara.
Eranga has been sidelined by a back injury and will miss the series, while Lakmal who is struggling with a groin niggle will undergo a fitness Test on Sunday to assess his chances of playing at Galle.
Wijegunawardene said that he hoped Lakmal would pull through or if not Nuwan Pradeep would be the other option to partner Dhammika Prasad.
Pakistan’s last Test series win over Sri Lanka was in the UAE in 2011 when they won the three-match series 1-0. Since then Sri Lanka has triumphed over Pakistan twice and drawn a series. Pakistan’s nemesis in these victories has been left-arm spinner Rangana Herath who’s taken 52 wickets in his last 8 Tests against them. Sri Lanka will depend heavily on the 37-year-old trundler if they are to repeat their success over Pakistan of last year.
“We will most likely play two spinners at Galle,” said Wijegunawardene. Herath will have the support of either Dilruwan Perera or Tharindu Kaushal, both off-spinners.
Pakistan has made six changes to the Test side that was here last year. Missing from their line-up are Khurram Manzoor, Abdur Rehman, Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Talha, Rahat Ali and Umar Akmal. Those who have replaced them in the current side are seasoned batter Mohammad Hafeez, Haris Sohail (left-hand bat), Yasir Shah (leg-spin), Zulfiqar Babar (left-arm spin), Imran Khan (medium-fast) and Ehsan Adil (fast-medium).
Pakistan’s batting looks formidable with evergreen Younis Khan leading the way followed by his captain Misbah-ul-Haq and Ahmed Shehzad, Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Shan Masood and wicket-keeper Sarfraz Ahmed, who had a great series last time Pakistan were here scoring four consecutive Test fifties in as many innings. Their pace attack will be led by Junaid Khan supported by Wahab Riaz.
In the current ICC Test rankings there is not much to choose between the two sides with only one point separating them. Pakistan is ranked sixth with 97 rating points and Sri Lanka seventh with 96.