June 1, 2012

Pakistan's chance to go one-up on India

Pakistan will aim to reverse the fortunes from their last trip to Sri Lanka, where they are headed now with a coach who shares a past with the island

There were times when Pakistan supporters anticipated a tour of Sri Lanka with the tranquility of one looking ahead to a stroll down a primrose path. Those times are long gone. As a fresh series in Sri Lanka approaches, the air is filled with excitement, anxiety, even a certain amount of dread. This is the Sri Lanka of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Thilan Samaraweera and Tillakaratne Dilshan; of insistent seam and menacing spin; of tenacity, vigour, confrontation and fight. It is no walk in the park.

Pakistan may have reinvented themselves in recent times, but their last tour to Sri Lanka, in July-August 2009, was a nightmare, and the pain lingers. In the first Test, in Galle, they fluffed a fourth-innings target of 168 by collapsing for 117, after at one point being 71 for 2. In the second Test, in Colombo, they were dismissed for 90 in the first innings despite winning the toss and batting, and then lost their last eight wickets for 26 runs in the second innings after having clawed their way back into the game. Even by Pakistan standards, both collapses were spectacular. In both matches it was the upright seam of Nuwan Kulasekara and the deft spin of Rangana Herath that proved Pakistan's undoing.

Admittedly, with the spot-fixing exorcism, the Asia Cup title in hand, and an unbroken streak of five Test victories, Pakistan are in very different shape now. Yet captain Misbah-ul-Haq and coach Dav Whatmore might want to keep the memory of those appalling collapses alive, with the aim of warding off over-confidence.

What makes this clash particularly appealing is the tense balance of power that currently exists between the two sides. Although Sri Lanka were defeated in all three forms of the game last year in Pakistan's relocated home series in the UAE, both teams remain neck to neck in resources and rankings. They are adjacent on the Test and ODI ladders, separated by narrow margins: Pakistan are fifth and Sri Lanka sixth in Tests, and the positions are switched in ODIs. In Twenty20s, Sri Lanka are third and Pakistan fifth, but there too the separation of points is modest.

Man for man, the batting arsenals are closely matched in Tests, but Pakistan have the edge in Test bowling and Sri Lanka in ODI batting. The current Test top 20s, for example, include three batsmen each from Pakistan (Younis Khan, Azhar Ali, and Misbah) and Sri Lanka (Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera), but there is only one Sri Lankan bowler (Herath) compared to three from Pakistan (Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman, and Umar Gul).

In ODIs, Pakistan have three bowlers in the top 20 (Ajmal, Mohammad Hafeez and Shahid Afridi) but only one batsman (Umar Akmal), while Sri Lanka have three batsmen (Sangakkara, Dilshan, and Jayawardene) but not a single bowler. If you go by the adage that Tests are won by bowlers and ODIs are won by batsmen, Pakistan should take the Test series while Sri Lanka pocket the ODIs. Meanwhile the T20s, which are increasingly emerging as a battle of all-round ability, could be anybody's rubber.

For Whatmore it is almost a set-up, albeit an unintentional one: if he replicates Mohsin's fine record, he will get a share of the credit, but anything less could fetch him a boatload of blame

Pakistan are driven to excel in all three formats, but especially so in Tests, where there is no dearth of incentives. Perhaps the biggest motivator has nothing to do with Sri Lanka at all, but with her neighbour a short boat ride to the north. If Pakistan complete a 3-0 whitewash of the Test series, they will displace India to become fourth in the ICC Test rankings. The joy this will unleash cannot be overestimated. While a 3-0 sweep against a tough opponent may sound a bit far-fetched, it has happened before for Pakistan and not too long ago either.

It is quite fitting that Whatmore's inaugural Test assignment with Pakistan should be a tour of Sri Lanka, the land of his birth, and of the World Cup-winning team with which he made his name as a coach of great professional commitment and nous. Whatmore is one of the most competent coaches in the business, but it remains to be seen whether his chemistry with ever-volatile Pakistan will generate storms and sparks or serenity and success.

It doesn't help that going into this series he finds himself in an impossible situation with regards to expectations. Even victory in each of the three Tests will only equal what his predecessor, Mohsin Khan, has already achieved against a better-ranked side. You can argue that Mohsin may not have had much to do with it, but he gets the credit nonetheless. For Whatmore it is almost a set-up, albeit an unintentional one: if he replicates Mohsin's fine record, he will get a share of the credit, but anything less could fetch him a boatload of blame.

Pakistan's touring party includes a balanced mix of stalwarts and peripherals, along with a handful of exciting prospects, and a couple of discarded names who are making a comeback. Everyone is going to be closely followed, but perhaps the person under closest scrutiny will be Azhar Ali. For the last few years Pakistan's line of batting heroes appeared to have dried up after Younis, who made his debut in 2000. Unlike other recent batsmen from Pakistan, Azhar is one who is starting to inspire genuine confidence at the crease. In 21 Tests he has an average over 43, with 13 fifties and two hundreds, including a brilliant match-winning 157 in his last innings. This outing in Sri Lanka could confirm if he is indeed destined to become one of Pakistan's authentic batting greats.

The battle officially kicks off with the first of two T20 internationals on June 1, to be followed by five ODIs and three Tests. Pakistan's last international match was the Asia Cup final in Dhaka in March, and their last Test match was against England in February in Dubai. For the country's untold cricket-mad millions, the first of June cannot arrive quickly enough.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi