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January 18, 2009
It isn't quite protocol, but nobody could blame Ijaz Butt, the PCB chairman, for being at Karachi's Jinnah International Airport to greet the arrival of Sri Lanka on Sunday morning. Pakistan needs international cricket like humans need water, and given that Mahela Jayawardene's men were the first team of standing to visit Pakistan for a bilateral series since September 2007, the gesture was both well-meant and indicative of the hosts' pleasure.
Not that the generosity of spirit is likely to infect Sri Lanka, for they don't arrive as the obliging tourists. They are a hardy bunch, well-balanced between young and old, and have a fair sprinkling of game-changing superstars. Pakistan closely followed the "grey areas" in sketchy recent ODI performances in Bangladesh, but they wouldn't have failed to notice that they still managed to win. Just in case they did, Jayawardene was on hand to remind them.
"We're still winning," he said. "There are periods when you go through tough times as a team and you need to pull through them. That's what character is all about. I haven't seen too many teams being 6 for 5 [as Sri Lanka were in the tri-series final against Bangladesh] and still winning. Even when we came here for the Asia Cup, we weren't favourites and we won it."
But since then they have been decidedly patchy, winning nine of 13 games, including a home series loss to India and a spate of unconvincing wins against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Batting is the concern, as a highest of 227 in that period suggests.
"The wickets were tough in Bangladesh but we have to struggle through that and challenge ourselves," Jayawardene admitted. "But consistency is something we are working on. After the 2007 World Cup some new guys came in and we went through a transition. It has been patchy, especially if you consider the bowling attack we have. But Upul [Tharanga] and Sanath [Jayasuriya] are back and they bring some experience, but we can be much more consistent with our batting."
It might very well be an instruction from captain Jayawardene to batsman Jayawardene. Those 13 games have produced a personally wretched run: just two fifties, an average of barely 21 and four ducks. Jayawardene thus finds himself in territory Mark Taylor and Nasser Hussain, among many other captains, have visited in recent years. You may lead a nation, but you can't buy yourself a run.
"I've always said that I have two different roles. When I'm captain, I'm a captain and I always consider myself as a batsman for the team. It is a concern because, as a batsman, I need to contribute. I don't see that I'm out of form because, when I play Tests, I'm batting really well, getting big runs. It's just the application and batting in different situations, trying to get through those periods that I need to work hard on."
The opponent will need to be worked on as well, for Pakistan are straining to play some serious cricket. Aggressive cricket, secret strategies and some young talent has been promised by the hosts. Jayawardene's response is to keep it simple: "This is not warfare, just a simple game. Our way is to play hard and tough. Pakistan is always Pakistan and they are a very tough side whether they play regularly or not. They have got quite a few individuals who can take the game away from you on a given day so it's going to be a tough series. We are looking forward to the challenge."
As is all of Pakistan.