Below-par teams look to alter precedent
As competitive as the cricket has been between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the greater battle has always been to determine the more hospitable host - who offers more mehmaanawaazi (or hospitality). Pakistan have been courteous enough to not win a Test series against Sri Lanka at home since 1991-92. And when the two sides meet tomorrow at the SSC ground in Colombo, the hosts have been so obliging as to allow Pakistan not a single Test series loss since Pakistan first arrived in 1985-86. That season was the last time they lost even a Test in Sri Lanka.
This time, the hosts have even foregone two key players as a grand gesture. Skipper Marvan Atapattu is out of the series with a back problem and Chaminda Vaas has been ruled out of the first Test with the side strain that kept him out of the ODI series. With an early summer jaunt to England, selectors have rightly decided not to risk him. Bob Woolmer told the Karachi-based dailyThe News that Vaas's absence will be keenly felt: "I think they will miss Vaas the most as he is a very shrewd and intelligent bowler."
It could have been worse but Sanath Jayasuriya has been passed fit and is expected to open the innings. Whatever his recent form and his age, at least six Pakistan players who step out tomorrow (and Woolmer too, whose first Test as coach it was) will remember his 253-run barbarism in Faisalabad 18 months ago. There is a limit to the hosts' generosity for Muttiah Muralitharan will be playing and he hasn't played a Test against them for four years. He's taken 118 wickets at this ground in 22 Tests and 68 wickets against Pakistan in 12 Tests, so what's the likelihood that he doesn't have a say here?
Stand-in skipper Mahela Jayawardene remains stoically upbeat. "If you look at our record we have performed really well in the last 12 months in Tests although we faced slight problems in India last winter," he was quoted as saying by The News. Actually it goes beyond that for since losing to India in the second Test at Kandy in August 2001, they have lost only three Tests at home, all against Australia in a series in which they had more than their share of moments.
On their part, Pakistan are thoughtful guests for they're also without Shoaib Akhtar (injury) and Mohammad Sami (dropped). Historically, it could be a crucial absence for Pakistan's successes in Sri Lanka have been the work of broody, reverse-swinging fast bowlers, whether it was Imran Khan in 1985-86, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in 1994 or just Wasim in 2000. But the absences are not as serious for recently it is a situation they have adapted to. The last Test between these two sides, at Karachi, in fact was also without Sami and Shoaib.
Danish Kaneria played his part then and not being a generally quiet chap, the silence that gripped him through the India series is unlikely to extend too much longer. In any case, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Mohammad Asif aren't shoddy and more than mere replacements. It's scary how at home Asif seems since he came back into the team against England and India. He's bowled Test match spells and ODI spells and appeared comfortable with any role presented to him.
So comfortable that he should maybe even be tried out as opener, given the way Pakistan have lurched from makeshift to specialist back to makeshift again within six Tests. Salman Butt is yesterday's Imran Farhat (out of form and favour) and Farhat is today's Butt (in less poor form and in favour). Woolmer said Farhat will open and with him Shoaib Malik will continue his transformation into a Test opener. It's worth recalling that in Pakistan's last Test innings - against India at Karachi - Butt and Farhat put on a century stand in the second innings. It's of equal worth to recall they put on nought in the first, so make of the opening situation what you will.
In Urdu, they say of excessive hospitality sometimes `pehle aap, pehle aap mein gaari chhoot jayegi' (You'll miss the car in all the waiting for `after you, after you'). With England waiting for both sides later in the year, such courtesy and welcoming should be rare this time round.
Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Sanath Jayasuriya, 2 Upal Tharanga, 3 Kumara Sangakkara (wk), 4 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 5 Tillekeratne Dilshan, 6 Thilan Samaraweera, 7 Malinga Bandara, 8 Farvez Maharoof, 9 Dilhara Fernando, 10 Lasith Malinga, 11 Muttiah Muralitharan
Pakistan (probable) 1 Imran Farhat, 2 Shoaib Malik, 3 Younis Khan, 4 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 5 Mohammad Yousuf, 6 Shahid Afridi, 7 Abdul Razzaq, 8 Kamran Akmal (wk), 9 Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, 10 Mohammad Asif, 11 Danish Kaneria
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo