'Pakistan series a tough challenge' - Ford
Sri Lanka head coach Graham Ford has said the upcoming series against Pakistan in the UAE will be a tough challenge for his team. Ford added that Pakistan have been on the move of late despite the fact that their home venue is the UAE whereas Sri Lanka have been relatively dormant recently.
"The advantage Pakistan's got is that they have played a lot of international cricket in the last six-eight months whereas unfortunately we haven't played nearly as much because of weather and various other things," Ford said. "We've done as much as we can to make sure we are sharp and ready but nothing's quite the same as being match-tight and match-sharp. They have got an advantage from that point of view and they have got some fantastically talented cricketers."
In the past eight months, Pakistan have played four Tests, 23 ODIs and eight T20s compared to Sri Lanka who have played no Tests, 17 ODIs and five T20s. The first Test against Pakistan, which starts on December 31 in Dubai, will be Sri Lanka's first in nearly ten months and Ford said the players were keenly looking forward to the tour.
"They have been out of cricket for a while and their energy and their effort in the training sessions has been exceptional. It is a great group to work with and motivation is never really anything of a problem," Ford said. "I am not sure whether people realize just how proud these guys are to represent their country and they have often shown their characters when the chips are down. The time out of real top-class international cricket and tours being cancelled has made them hungry."
On their last tour to the UAE in 2011, Sri Lanka lost the three-Test series 1-0, the five-match ODI series 4-1 and also went down in the only T20. This time around they will again be involved in three Tests in addition to five ODIs and two T20s. The team is scheduled to leave for the UAE on December 6.
"When Sri Lanka went their last it didn't go all too well," Ford said. "Hopefully we can show that we have made some progress. They are a very tough team to beat in the UAE and they are playing good cricket no matter where they play. They have done well against South Africa just recently. It really will be a tough challenge for us.
"Some of the players have been talking about some of the things they need to expect are going to happen there. Everybody is that much wiser on the conditions and what to expect.
"We had the advantage of a pretty good home series against Pakistan and we know quite a bit about their team and some of our boys have performed well against them so psychologically that's also a boost for us. But at the end of the day it's about getting down there and playing really well session for session."
Ever since Pakistan made the UAE their home base in 2010 they have not lost a single Test series there but Ford felt they were not invincible. "They cleaned up England 3-0 and from a psychological point of view they are aware that's their fortress, that's where they play well. But for us it's an exciting challenge. That's the way to make history, that's the way the boys can make heroes of themselves. It's tough but it's not something that's impossible."
One of the key points for Sri Lanka if they are to emerge victorious against Pakistan is how well their batsmen tackle the world-class spin of Saeed Ajmal. Ajmal was the leading wicket-taker for Pakistan in the 2011 series against Sri Lanka in the UAE with 18 Test wickets and 11 ODI wickets.
"I've been involved only in one series with him and we played him quite well in that," Ford said. "Certainly one or two of our players play him pretty well. Most batsmen in the world do have problems with him. It's not like you are going to dominate him or he is an easy option. He is a factor in any series that he plays but we did cope with him last time around.
"Obviously more players are comfortable than others against him. He is more successful in the UAE and the challenge is there. Any bowler that turns the ball in both directions and is difficult to read is a very effective man to have in your side. Added to the fact that he's got the disguise and the ability to turn the ball both ways (is that) he's got fantastic control. Those ingredients make him a tough bowler. Pakistan will be looking to him as a match-winner and we'll be looking to try and neutralize him as possible."
Apart from Ajmal, Pakistan have got a few newcomers such as the seven-foot tall left-arm fast bowler Mohammad Irfan and left-arm spinner Zulfiqar Babar, whom most of the Sri Lanka batsmen have not faced.
"We got video footage and the analyst prepares information for all the players and they'll get their copy of the footage of players in the next day or two to study them," Ford said. "There's always a sharing of information. News gets around and some of these guys will have played against some of these chaps and seen them. You get some info about them from one or two people who played against them and get some sort of an idea of what type of cricketers they are.
"Fortunately these days there is so much TV coverage that players can't hide away. You are going to find out a lot about them. It's one thing knowing about them and it's another thing going out and playing against them."
Ford said Sri Lanka will miss Mahela Jayawardene's experience during the limited-overs leg of the tour. The former captain has opted out for personal reasons. "You can't say enough about Mahela's contribution," Ford said. "He is such an important person in the group. He is brilliant as a player, he sets the tone and he is a great example for the youngsters. His knowledge of the game is just unbelievable. I've learnt a huge amount from him.
"Not having him around is a bit of a challenge but we've gone through periods without him before when he's had injury problems and we managed pretty well. It's something that the team is learning to adjust to and that's something that they will have to in the future be able to do - go and play and win without him."
Ford dismissed the notion that Jayawardene's absence would bring added pressure on the other two senior batsmen Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan. "Those two guys have thrived on pressure throughout their careers. They are both strong mentally and pressure might even be a good thing for them. I don't think that is something to be concerned about. They know their game so well."