Friendly foes await Sri Lanka

Wednesday, 11 December 2013 00:43 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

ESPNCricinfo: In Sri Lanka’s fickle cricketing landscape, Pakistan have lately been viewed as one of the team’s friendliest foes. Sri Lanka fans’ admiration for Pakistan’s cricket has been founded on shared ground. Most obviously, there is resemblance in cricketing philosophy; Lasith Malinga and Sohail Tanvir are products of their unique milieu, but it is not difficult to imagine a round-arm slinger from Rawalpindi, or a wrong-footed left armer from Rathgama. No other nation, perhaps, could have easily produced either. 
 There is also the rich recent history of spin, shrouded in mystery. Between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, they have owned the progenitor of the doosra in Saqlain Mushtaq, the man who made the ball famous in Muttiah Muralitharan, its best current practitioner in Saeed Ajmal, and a rising bowler with an improving version of the ball, in Sachithra Senanayake. Then there are the shambolic administrations, which more often appear to hinder the national sides than support them, while Sri Lanka’s newly-formed one-sided rivalry with India has bred another thread of fraternal goodwill. Coincidentally too, the tour will be both Dav Whatmore and Graham Ford’s final weeks in charge of their sides. The former was effectively let go, the latter chose to walk. Both sides also have produced alluring players of spin, many of whom have retired or are just about to, and young men are now charged with filling shoes and scoreboards. In that regeneration, though, there are mutual hints of decline. Ten months of selection policy focused on grooming the next generation has not future-proofed Sri Lanka’s batting unit yet. Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne have had encouraging returns in Tests, but their limited-overs statistics don’t yet suggest they are the next Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara - whom they will inevitably be compared with. Jayawardene’s absence from the limited-overs leg of this series may allow both batsmen to bat higher up in the order, which should suit their abilities better than the finishing roles they had been saddled with. In Tests, both teams will also be fielding young, inexperienced opening pairs. Shan Masood and Khurram Manzoor are at almost identical places in their career as Sri Lanka’s likely openers, Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva. All four have a shot at embedding themselves in the international arena, on tracks that should not be far from those on which they excel at home. Though they are at disparate ends of their careers, there are similarities for the teams’ main captains too. Misbah-ul-Haq is an unpopular captain for some, and while Angelo Mathews has had moderate success at the helm, he is still treading lightly as a leader and his personal form has been inconsistent. A poor tour for either man might have loosened their grip on the reins, only, there are few viable alternatives. The teams are well-matched on most counts. Pakistan beat Sri Lanka 1-0 in their last Test series in the UAE, but Sri Lanka reversed that scoreline at home, when they dominated the three-match series last year. Sri Lanka’s batting perhaps gives them the edge in ODIs and Twenty20s, while Pakistan have just returned from a successful trip to South Africa, where the highly-rated India side is presently being humiliated. And, perhaps, that is Pakistan’s greatest advantage in the approach to the tour. While Sri Lanka have been reduced to playing matches against themselves and watching rain ruin their first meaningful cricket since July, Pakistan are fighting-fit from five months on the international treadmill. Their Test loss to Zimbabwe in September now seems a distant memory, after more encouraging results against South Africa. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, have not played overseas since July, and in Tests, the New Year’s Eve match will be their first against a top-eight opposition since this year’s New Year Test in Sydney. One of the foremost reasons Sri Lanka Cricket refused Pakistan’s request to play one Test under lights is because its players would already be adjusting to playing Tests again; an orange ball and floodlights may have complicated preparation further - particularly as there are no practice matches before the Tests. There is already buzz in Sri Lanka for this tour, primarily because the public has had so long to look forward to it. It is a stage for young men of both teams to make defining plays, and with two major limited-overs trophies now on the horizon, raising stakes further, the subplots unfolding over a six-week battle may prove just as engrossing as the major narrative.