Hot-and-cold teams tussle for final semi-final spot
June 12, 2017
Start time 10.30am local (0930 GMT)
And so, it has transpired that two fundamentally flawed sides - seventh and eighth on the ODI rankings - now have the chance to scramble over the other into the semi-final of the most competitive one-day tournament around.
How this came about deserves a brief recap. Pakistan, who barely strung together five overs of competence against India, choked South Africa's top order with spin, before the quicks came back to wipe out the middle order with reverse swing. The next day, Sri Lanka, who had been swatted away like a gnat by South Africa, ran down India's 321 for 6 with ease - Angelo Mathews so cool in the final overs, he practically had a cigar between his lips, and a drink in one hand.
Even just two games in, both teams have put together such colourful campaigns. Sri Lanka's old warhorse, Lasith Malinga, has been sporadically effective with the ball, but has been more entertaining in the field, where his slow-motion dives have brought to mind the keeling over of a ship. If you squint, you can just about see seismic ripples in the turf. Elsewhere, Sri Lanka have attempted singles advisable only on low-gravity planets, have committed batting hara-kiri against high-quality wrist spin, and players have strived en masse to rule themselves out of this game - Chamara Kapugedara, Kusal Perera and Upul Tharanga already unavailable, before a blow to Thisara Perera's head at training also put him in doubt, though, thankfully, he appears to be fine now.
Pakistan, meanwhile, had lost Umar Akmal to fitness concerns a week before the tournament, have seen ace bowler Mohammad Amir go wicketless in both matches, while other bowlers in the attack lurched from abysmal to dominant in the space of three days. Sarfraz Ahmed's new captaincy has also been eventful. Mohammad Hafeez delivered ten overs and contributed the vital wicket of Quinton de Kock in Pakistan's win over South Africa, but had not been bowled at all in the previous match, prompting much head-scratching, not least from Pakistan's own coach.
Look, these previews are often an occasion for considered analysis; a platform for weighing up relative strengths, and figuring out which side has the upper hand. But is there really a point with these two teams? When they play as they have, they are impervious to any kind of meaningful dissection. There is so little consistency from one game to the next, the whole exercise loses its value.
And a Sri Lanka v Pakistan knockout has so much tragicomic potential that to discuss it beforehand is like giving out spoilers. This preview may already have said too much.
Sri Lanka WLWLL (completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Babar Azam, one of the brightest young batting talents on the planet, has five hundreds and six fifties in 28 innings, a rocking average of 54.44, and - crucially for a Pakistan batsman of the last two years - a 21st-century strike rate of 89. He had just been warming up when the rains came down in Birmingham - his last stroke having been a regal on-drive off Kagiso Rabada. Having had a modest tour of England last year, Babar will be eager to cross fifty for the first time on English soil, and Sri Lanka's limited attack may be the opposition to do it against.
Also in possession of a potentially devastating payload of talent is another 22-year-old, Kusal Mendis, whose crinkle-free 89 on Thursday helped set Sri Lanka on track to victory. There are still flaws in his game - Pakistan might be wise to pack their slip cordon early in his innings, for example. But 26 innings in, there is a scientific composure to his game that has been the cause of quiet excitement for Sri Lanka fans. Only Joe Root has hit more ODI fifties than Mendis' 11, since the latter's debut almost a year ago.
Kusal Perera's exit from the tournament due to a hamstring injury means Sri Lanka's batting will be in flux again. They have flown in Dhananjaya de Silva and, given Tharanga remains suspended for another match, de Silva may have to walk straight into the middle order. There is a chance Sri Lanka will play Lakshan Sandakan instead of Thisara Perera, but the selectors have generally been conservative, so Thisara could stay. De Silva and Gunathilaka both provide offspin options.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 2 Danushka Gunathilaka, 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Dinesh Chandimal, 5 Angelo Mathews (capt.), 6 Asela Gunaratne, 7 Dhananjaya de Silva, 8 Thisara Perera, 9 Suranga Lakmal, 10 Lasith Malinga, 11 Nuwan Pradeep
There is a chance of fast-bowling allrounder Faheem Ashraf debuting, in place of Mohammad Hafeez. However, Pakistan will perhaps be unwilling to mess with a winning combination.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Azhar Ali, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Mohammad Hafeez, 5 Shoaib Malik, 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt, wk), 7 Imad Wasim, 8 Mohammad Amir, 9 Shadab Khan, 10 Hasan Ali, 11 Junaid Khan
Pitch and conditions
The weather is forecast to be cloudy but dry, with temperatures around the mid-teens. A fresh pitch is being used for this match. Scores of 280-300 have seemed about par in the two matches played in Cardiff so far.
Stats and trivia
- The last time these two teams met in an ODI outside Asia was back in 2002. Of their ten most recent encounters - each of which has been in Asia - Sri Lanka have won six.
- Angelo Mathews, who hit 52 not out against India, has averaged an outstanding 50.08 since the start of 2014, with a strike rate of nearly 88
- Since his debut in August last year, Hasan Ali has taken 33 wickets at an average of 25.9 and strike rate of just under 27 - better, by a distance, than any of his team-mates to have played more than one match during that period
"We are not trying to get too far ahead. We just want to take one game at a time. We're not thinking about the semi-final as of now. We're just taking on Pakistan tomorrow. We've got to play really good cricket to beat them, and we all know that they're a very dangerous team."
"I think it's an achievement. Everyone wanted to do well in this competition. I believe, and we believe as a team, we are moving towards the right direction. We know as a team we are gelling together."
Mohammad Hafeez on what reaching a semi-final would mean
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando