The five-match one-day international series between Sri Lanka and Pakistan which commences at Dambulla today (11th July) is crucial for the visitors if they are to qualify for a place in the 2017 ICC Champions trophy in England.
The extra pressure on the Pakistanis to win the series comes from the fact that only seven teams plus host England are eligible to qualify for the tournament to be held from June 1-19 and the cut-off date for determining the participating teams is September 30, 2015.
The top six places are secure with Australia, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and England already qualifying according to the current ICC ODI rankings.
The battle in fact is for the final two available places with Bangladesh, Pakistan and West Indies vying for it. The three teams are separated by just six points.
Currently Bangladesh are sitting pretty in seventh position with 93 points and needs only one win from their three-match ODI series against South Africa to retain its pre-series points. On the other hand if they lose the series 0-3 it will result in them dropping to 90 points.
Ninth ranked Pakistan who has 87 points will move ahead of the West Indies by a fraction of a point if it wins the series against Sri Lanka 3-2. They can assure themselves of qualifying and rise as high as 94 points if they can make a clean sweep of the series 5-0, but will drop as low as 84 points if it fails to win a single match.
West Indies, the third team are currently not involved in any matches but have a one-day tri-series involving Pakistan and Zimbabwe lined up before the cut-off date.
Sri Lanka are coming out for the first time to play an ODI after being eliminated in the quarter-final stage of the 2015 World Cup in March whereas Pakistan who also failed to get beyond the World Cup quarter-finals have already played two ODI series against Bangladesh, which they lost 0-3 and Zimbabwe – won 2-0. It was their defeat at the hands of Bangladesh that has placed them in this precarious position to qualify for the Champions trophy.
Pakistan has not won a bilateral ODI series in Sri Lanka since 2006 – the same period as they had not in Tests until the recently concluded series where they managed to break the hoodoo and win 2-1.
Although the composition of the team has changed and Pakistan has a different captain in Azhar Ali they will be keen to repeat their Test success in the shorter format as well.
Both teams are without some of their stalwarts who have retired since the World Cup. Pakistan are minus all-rounder Shahid Afridi, Misbah-ul-Haq who led them in the World Cup and Younis Khan. They have retained only six of the World Cup members in an entirely new look ODI team which has three uncapped players.
The biggest loss for them is fast bowling all-rounder Wahab Riaz who was forced to return home during the Test series with a fractured left wrist. Pakistan have left their options open provided he recovers sufficiently and depending on how the series progresses he could be drafted into the squad later.
However following their shock loss in Bangladesh, they have brought about some experience into their line up by retaining batting all-rounder Shoaib Malik whom they recalled after two years for the series against Zimbabwe. Malik (219) and Mohammad Hafeez (161) are the only players with over 100 ODI appearances which shows how inexperienced this team is.
Sri Lanka although without Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara (both retired) have retained 11 members from their World Cup squad which should give them the edge over Pakistan in experience.
The most notable absentee from the Lankan line-up is left-arm spinner Rangana Herath who did not have a good Test series against Pakistan picking up only two wickets in two matches.
“Rangana had requested not to consider him for the series, so we have rested him,” said chief selector Kapila Wijegunawardene. “We are looking at him more for the Test format.”
Replacing him are two young uncapped left-arm spin all-rounders Milinda Siriwardana and Sachith Pathirana, both of whom have performed prolifically with bat and ball in domestic cricket.
“Milinda we selected as a batting all-rounder and Sachith as a bowling all-rounder. We need to start planning gradually for the next World Cup and I think this is the way to go forward,” said Wijegunawardene.
Apart from them the rest of the squad are experienced enough in ODI cricket with Lasith Malinga heading the bowling line-up and veteran Tillakaratne Dilshan the batting.
Dinesh Chandimal who kept wickets in the three Test matches will continue in the ODI’s as well replacing long-standing ’keeper Kumar Sangakkara.
Of immense value to Mathews will be the presence of senior pro Dilshan who at 38 continues to amaze everyone with his agility on the field. His presence will certainly uplift the Lankan fielding standards which showed vast improvement during the Test series.
Wijegunawardene sounded confident that all-rounder Thisara Perera would perform at his best during the series. In the last few series Perera has not done justice to his immense talent.
“From what I’ve seen of him at the nets he is hungry for success,” said Wijegunawardene, “He knows he has to perform because there are a lot of youngsters pressing for places.”
Nuwan Kulasekera, a key figure in many of Sri Lanka’s past wins has been overlooked for poor form, but should be in the reckoning once he regains it.
July 11: 1st ODI at Dambulla
July 15: 2nd ODI at Pallekele (d/n)
July 19: 3rd ODI at R Premadasa Staduim (d/n)
July 22: 4th ODI at R Premadasa Stadium (d/n)
July 26: 5th ODI at Hambantota (d/n)