Pakistan in Sri Lanka 2009 July 2, 2009

Sub-plots and storylines

Pakistan didn't go to any war memorial on their way to Sri Lanka. Nor was their former coach hired before the series by their hosts. Umar Gul hasn't been talking about Mahela Jayawardene's technical faults - so no chance of Jayawardene telling Gul to Bring It On. And no one should expect a sea of green from Pakistan to fly over India for three weeks of cricket and partying in Sri Lanka. No, they haven't been talking in the bars and tea-stalls about this three-Test series for the last two years because, till not long ago, nobody was sure this series would happen.

On another continent, in another Test series, one sub-plot after another is adding to what has already been a hugely anticipated contest. Chapter by chapter, the Ashes story is unfolding - and to think not a single ball has been bowled yet.

In England Test cricket is alive and kicking but within the ICC there are murmurs of four-day Tests. Part of the blame for that lies with boring draws of the sort these two teams played earlier this year in Pakistan, and sympathy for what happened off the field during that series will no longer cut much ice with the suits. There's more at stake here than a series and a shot at the fourth spot in the ICC ratings; every series from now on will shape the future of Test cricket. A dull series equals a nail in the coffin that the Twenty20 leagues have ready. Yet for all the lack of hype to this series, for the absence of the sort of glamour - and controversy - in ready abundance in England, build-up, there is a world of intrigue and sub-plots beneath the surface.

It lies in the idiosyncratic skills of Murali and Mendis. In the fact that Pakistan are the one team to have played Murali and Mendis well - not the least in the ICC World Twenty20 last month - and have never lost a Test series in Sri Lanka. And in this twist: the Tests will be played at venues where, less than a year ago, M&M brought the most-feared modern middle order to its knees.

It lies in Pakistan's status as the first team to welcome back players who left them for the ICL. Will Mohammad Yousuf be able to put behind him all he has been through over the last two years?

It lies in Jaywardene, one of the few modern cricketers to have given up captaincy while still being good with the bat - in fact, to preserve and prolong that very goodness. This will be his first series since resigning; he will play under good friend Kumar Sangakkara. How will it work out? How different will Sangakkara's team be from Jayawardene's? Will it lose that distinct Jayawardene stamp? Or will that touch, the artistry, the individuality, be reinforced?

It lies in the tracks that assist nothing but spin - but where, in 2005-06, Mohammad Asif confounded all logic and struck like lightning to bowl Sri Lanka out for 73. Now Umar Gul will want to supplement their limited-over credentials by winning Tests. Will we see a 17-year-old surprise?

A lot will depend on the pitches. The monsoon has hit the south coast, and the groundsmen have a big job on their hands. If they can give anything close to what they gave India last year, they will have done a commendable job. If they approximate what they gave South Africa in 2006, when the tourists conceded the world record for the highest partnership in all Test cricket, they will have done their board a disservice. For the ICC, for the first time, will qualify dull, lifeless pitches as "poor'" and will "impose severe penalties" on the boards responsible.

Which is just as well. Because what we need is sharp turners as opposed to slow and low pitches that every once in a while give cricket in Sri Lanka a bad name. We need the established middle orders and the young top orders to be tested. We need silly points and forward short legs breathing down their necks most of the time. Not many will complain either if the outfields are abrasive, and if Gul starts reversing it early. How about some raw pace from Dammika Prasad, as on his debut last year when he set up Sri Lanka's win in the deciding Test against India? What we don't need is a mention of Lahore again and everybody, not least the teams, needs to move on.

These two teams have enough talent to promise a cracking series, although Sri Lanka will go in as favourites, by virtue of playing at home and having played more and regular Test cricket. But there is no reason why Pakistan shouldn't surprise the world, as they did in the World Twenty20.

It is also perhaps a good time to start a rivalry that has never been, except for the nastiness of 1986 when Duleep Mendis and Imran Khan blamed and counter-blamed umpires and officials in the other country. A nice prelude was set up in England, when Sri Lanka did their best in trying to knock Pakistan out during the Super Eights, and were returned the favour in the final. Cricket would be the better for it if the storyline traversed the forms of the game.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo