Rain a factor in ‘lively’ Pallekele
Sri Lanka in June and July is greener, even more beautiful and the lush hills form a stunning backdrop to the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium, the host of two rain-affected Tests. The third one starting on Sunday, after some menacing rain the day before, will be lucky to get away unscathed. Amid the inevitable concerns about the weather this time of the year, there remains the promise of a more “sporting” pitch at this venue, the unforgiving SSC having yet again shown its contempt for bowlers.
Led by Junaid Khan, Pakistan were able to trouble the Sri Lanka batsmen on that SSC highway and though he got support from the left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman, the pace and discipline of Umar Gul, who was out with an ankle injury, was missed. While Pakistan’s batting improved markedly at the SSC, albeit on one of the world’s best batting surfaces, their bowlers will be under added pressure to force a result that would deprive Sri Lanka of their first Test series win in nine attempts.
Sri Lanka, though better-placed in the series, should, presumably, be rankled by constant reminders of the influence Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas and even Lasith Malinga had on their Test fortunes. That point is made each time they lose or draw a Test, and walking away unblemished with a series win will mark a turn of the page, a sign of having moved on, at least to some of their detractors if not themselves.
In Suraj Randiv and Rangana Herath, Sri Lanka have a potent spin combination for home Tests. They bat deep enough, though without Chanaka Welegedera their pace department needs a boost. Nuwan Pradeep has pace, but has proved ineffective, leaving Nuwan Kulasekara with a big burden. It is here that Pakistan have traditionally been superior, and that being the case in this series as well gives them a good chance.
Sri Lanka: DWLWL (most recent first)
Watch out for…
Thilan Samaraweera: Samaraweera’s solidity has served Sri Lanka tremendously over the years but he’s experiencing a blip after a prolific first-class season. His last seven Test innings have yielded just one half-century. Two of his three dismissals in this series have come after remaining padded up for long spells in the dressing room; he’ll want a long enough spell in the middle to end a rare run of underachievement.
Under greater pressure is opener Tharanga Paranavitana with scores of 24, 25, 0 and 32 in his last four Test innings. He’s got starts but that’s not encouraging enough when still competing for an opening slot.
Taufeeq Umar: It was Taufeeq who got the Pakistan innings rolling at the SSC, his attacking approach a contrast to a subdued Mohammad Hafeez, who only opened up much later. Taufeeq confidently drove on the up and dominated through the off side, before throwing it away with a century there for the taking. He responded with a fluent, unbeaten 42 in the second innings, and looks good to keep a successful opening partnership going.
Pitch and conditions
Mahela Jayawardene reckons the track in Pallekele will “definitely” be “livelier” than the SSC, but will the weather play spoilsport? There are showers forecast; this, after what seemed a pleasant and calm lead-up to the Test was interrupted by a heavy bout of rain on Saturday. While Sri Lanka had a chance to train in the morning, Pakistan did not. At the press conference, Angelo Mathews said he noticed a greenish tinge on the track and expected bounce and movement.
The inaugural Test at this venue in 2010 included just 103.3 overs with two full days being washed out. Ryan Harris was among the wickets here in 2011, but frequent interruptions due to rain meant the teams had to settle for a draw, with Australia feeling hard done by in the end.
Pakistan have gone the diplomatic way by saying they’ll keep all options open. Aizaz Cheema and Saeed Ajmal were the weak links in the bowling attack at the SSC. Gul, if fit, should return to bolster the attack but there’s also Mohammad Sami in the squad, waiting for a chance. He bowled with pace and venom in the limited-overs games, and it remains to be seen what Pakistan do with him.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Mohammad Hafeez, 2 Taufeeq Umar, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Younis Khan, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Asad Shafiq, 7 Adnan Akmal (wk), 8 Umar Gul, 9 Junaid Khan, 10 Saeed Ajmal, 11 Abdur Rehman.
Sri Lanka could consider leaving out the off-colour Pradeep and replacing him with Dilhara Fernando or the all-round option of Thisara Perera.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 2 Tharanga Paranavitana, 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 5 Thilan Samaraweera, 6 Angelo Mathews, 7 Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), 8 Nuwan Kulasekara, 9 Suraj Randiv, 10 Rangana Herath, 11 Dilhara Fernando.
Stats and trivia
Rangana Herath is three away from 150 wickets in Tests. He’s played the most Tests for a Sri Lankan specialist spinner after Muralitharan – 39, after Murali’s 132. Kumar Dharmasena is the third specialist spinner on the list.
Taufeeq Umar is 90 away from reaching 3000 runs in Tests.
The Pakistan XI that played the SSC Test was more a gang of senior citizens in comparison to the Pakistan team that took on New Zealand more than 10 years ago in 2002. The average age of the current team is 33, back then it was 25.72.
“As far as I am concerned nobody is out of form, actually. The guys have been getting starts but we are professionals. It’s not a major concern. We need to show confidence in individuals.”
“The batsmen took the responsibility and the bowlers did their part and the momentum will be there for us.”