Can Dilshan's men arrest a worrying slide?
Wednesday, November 23
Start time 1500 (1100 GMT)
What is ailing Sri Lankan cricket? In the past eight months, following the World cup, they have played eight series across formats against top-flight teams, and gone on to lose six of them. The two victories came in Twenty20 series, if that term can be used to describe one- and two-match Twenty20 shoot-outs. Their decline in Test cricket was not a complete surprise, given how much the side depended on Muttiah Muralitharan, but the ODI slump cannot be easily explained.
The answer lies in the batting numbers: since the World Cup final, Sri Lanka's top order, with one notable exception, has endured significant drops in their batting averages. The captain Tillakaratne Dilshan has been the biggest offender, scoring 267 runs at a pitiful average of 17.80. Kumar Sangakkara and Upul Tharanga have also been poor imitations of their usual pace-setting selves at the top of the order, while Angelo Mathews is going through his worst phase since emerging as a world-class allrounder.
Mahela Jayawardene is the one man who has managed to steer clear of the Sri Lankan batting nadir. He delivered them their only win in this series with a sparkling half-century in the second game. Jayawardene won't be playing Wednesday's dead rubber because of a knee injury.
Sri Lanka's chances of a face-saving win are further blighted by the prime form of the Pakistan bowling unit. Saeed Ajmal is among the most dangerous offspinners going around now, while Mohammad Hafeez adds another dimension with his mix of straight ones and straighter ones. Umar Gul has been exemplary with the new ball, while Aizaz Cheema has shown that he belongs at this level. Pakistan's worries, if any, will be on the batting front too. But if their bowlers continue to be unplayable, it won't matter. And if all else fails, they still have Shahid Afridi.
Pakistan: WWLWW (most recent first)
Sri Lanka: LLWLW
Watch out for …
At the risk of stating the obvious, don't take your eyes off Shahid Afridi. He batted responsibly in the fourth ODI, curtailing his instincts for the most part of his innings, and still needed only 65 balls for his 75. Later, he slid clumsily while attempting to save a boundary in the outfield and got his knee stuck in the turf. It was the sort of injury that stalled Simon Jones' career for four years. Afridi came back after three overs, limped through his run-up and ripped out five wickets. Expect the X-man celebration to make a few appearances in Abu Dhabi.
Lasith Malinga has largely been off the boil in this series. His six wickets have come at nearly five runs per over, and three of those dismissals came in a single match-winning effort. Given how patchy Pakistan's batting form has been thus far in the series, he will be targeting their toes on Wednesday. Can his yorkers provide Sri Lanka some succour?
Shoiab Malik looked out of place on his return to the side, but an injury to Abdul Razzaq is likely to give him another chance. Razzaq is returning home with a shoulder injury that puts him in doubt for the upcoming Bangladesh tour as well. With the series in the bag, Gul might be in line for a break, in which case Junaid Khan could get a well-deserved chance.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Mohammad Hafeez, 2 Imran Farhat, 3 Younis Khan, 4 Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), 5 Umar Akmal, 6 Abdul Razzaq/Shoaib Malik, 7 Shahid Afridi, 8 Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), 9 Umar Gul/Junai Khan, 10 Saeed Ajmal, 11 Aizaz Cheema
Jayawardene's absence could pave the way for Dimuth Karunaratne's inclusion in the Sri Lankan XI, unless Chamara Silva is ready to play after being called up two days ahead of the game. Angelo Mathews' form is likely to be a huge worry, but Sri Lanka don't have the reserves to afford him a break now.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Upul Tharanga, 2 Tillakaratne Dilshan (capt), 3 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 4 Dinesh Chandimal, 5 Dimuth Karunaratne/Chamara Silva, 6 Angelo Mathews, 7 Jeevan Mendis, 8 Thisara Perera, 9 Lasith Malinga, 10 Seekkuge Prasanna, 11 Dilhara Fernando
Stats and trivia
- Tillakaratne Dilshan is yet to hit his first six in ODIs since taking over as full-time Sri Lankan captain - he has led in 15 one-dayers
- Pakistan have featured in each of the 16 games played at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium, winning nine of them
- Sri Lanka have lost two of their three games here, with the win coming in the dead rubber of a three-match series
"As a captain I can't do anything to change the players' game. As a unit we have to take responsibility. As captain I am disappointed to lose, and we need to sit down and think where we can start again before the South Africa series."
Will Sri Lanka make the fresh start that Tillakaratne Dilshan desires in Abu Dhabi?
"When you have a good atmosphere around you, then you try your best to deliver. I was overjoyed by the support in Sharjah where they cheered my singles, so I was happy to put my head down initially."
An adoring crowd can make Shahid Afridi do anything, even bat sensibly
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo