Pakistan win early Mendis battle
Whatever Pakistan had planned for Ajantha Mendis, it worked in the first ODI at the National Stadium in Karachi. Leading up to the series, several batsmen, as well as the coach, had said they would look to attack and unnerve him. For once, thought was translated into action: Khurram Manzoor cut and pulled Mendis for four in his very first over and a route to neutralizing Mendis - for now - was set.
The plan, Shoaib Malik and Salman Butt revealed later, wasn't quite so gung-ho. The idea, they said, was to pick him off with minimum fuss and damage, as once opponents used to say of Muttiah Muralitharan. "If you attack a good bowler, sometimes he will get you out," said Malik. "But if you just target four to five runs every over, then their plan of attack - to take wickets - fails."
It is what Pakistan did well, with the odd boundary thrown in for good measure. Butt was particularly adept, nimble wrists helping him pick gaps and keep the strike going. His eighth ODI hundred was of a now familiar pattern: cover driving and cutting aplenty to give the innings some early shape, then settling down to bat through. A strengthened leg-side game has definitely added further depth.
"The plan was just to play the spinners on merit," Butt said. "The required rate wasn't daunting and I didn't have to take chances. It was very satisfying to play so well against such good spinners, and any innings is important if it helps Pakistan win."
Butt lauded Manzoor's handling of Mendis, though a crawl to start the chase - they were 9-0 after six overs - indicated tougher times. But really, the opening start was an age-old Pakistan formula, one side which has mostly refused to subscribe to the concept of a pinch-hitting opener.
Slow and steady has mostly been the way, keeping wickets in hand before slyly boiling over as the innings wears on. The batting Powerplay might just suit that kind of thinking.
In truth, that strategy was never fully tested here, for the total was never a daunting one. Mahela Jaywardene later acknowledged that an inevitable "off day" for Mendis wasn't the concern as much as the sputtering batting. Since the Asia Cup in July, they have yet to post a higher total than 227, which given that they have played a vast majority of those games against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, is a concern bordering on a headache waiting to turn into a migraine.
An explosive start was first wasted, before a promising construction job was then squandered. The bowling was good, the pitch "a typical Karachi, batting-friendly one", but some of the shots not so. "We played some poor shots and gave away wickets. Even after the first three wickets we were playing well but more poor shots and a run-out held us back. We've got to make sure guys bat long and have one guy who we can bat around," Jayawardene said.
His own form has been at the centre of it. In his last seven ODIs, he has scored 33 runs, four ducks alongside his single today. He's faced a meagre 75 balls in that time. "I'm not getting to spend enough time in the middle at all. I don't know whether it is good balls or too much cricket but I have to get out of it. I've been in similar runs in the past and have come out of it."
And if his team is to gain anything from this trip, it has to emerge from a similarly inconsistent rut. "You go through these periods in international cricket . Our last 12 months haven't been consistent in ODIs and as professionals we need to get through this period," he added.
The portents aren't great. If Sri Lanka have been one of the best ODI sides since 2003, Pakistan has been their bogey. An emphatic eight-wicket loss was their 10th in 16 games since then to Pakistan.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo