Hosts pin hopes on batting stars
Till recently, Pakistan's full tour of Sri Lanka for a series of two Twenty20s, five ODIs and three Tests existed only in the ICC's Future Tours Programme. The schedule was formally approved by the PCB a month ago and whatever build-up that existed was lost in the frenzy of the IPL. Despite its perfect positioning - the IPL is over, those from the two sides in question are free of other commitments and Sri Lanka is the venue for the World Twenty20 - the pre-series hype that usually accompanies a contest between two high-profile teams as Sri Lanka and Pakistan is missing.
One reason could be the fact that the tour gets underway in far-flung Hambantota, the country's newest cricketing venue; at the cricket board office in Colombo, though, there is little or no activity at the ticket counter.
For Pakistan, international cricket's nomads, it's another series away from home. Deprived of IPL activity, the lead-up to this tour for them consisted of a two-week camp in Lahore under hot conditions sure to test them in Sri Lanka. Fans showed up in thousands to watch a series of practice games between the best limited-overs players in the country. Nothing can substitute international action at home, but this is the best their fans can get.
Only a select number of Sri Lankan players, on the other hand, have had the benefit of rigorous Twenty20 match practice. Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Lasith Malinga have been particularly busy in the IPL, while the others have been keeping busy training at home. Dinesh Chandimal, who failed to get a game with Rajasthan Royals, was released midway to join a training camp at home. A few more weeks in the dugout could have been detrimental to the fledgling star's development. Fitness is paramount in June's punishing cricketing conditions and it's an area both teams will have to address.
The series begins with Twenty20s in Hambantota, which from Pakistan's perspective will be more than just a preparation for the World Twenty20. The series marks the start of a fresh experiment with the captaincy, to see if Mohammad Hafeez has it in him to emulate Younis Khan's achievement in the 2009 World Twenty20. The sudden change in leadership may appear surprising but isn't seismic. A phased change of guard was a necessity given that Misbah-ul-Haq is 38. His own dogged batting style and experience created a sense of stability rarely seen in various Pakistan teams over the last 20 years. He may be the antithesis to some of his mercurial predecessors but his popularity has survived the initial doubts - as reinforced by the popular Twitter hashtag 'TeamMisbah.'
When teams are on a high, one issue that is sometimes ignored - with often catastrophic effects - is succession planning. Misbah wisely decided to step down as T20 captain, though he still harbours intentions of playing the format. His dropping altogether from the T20 squad would have stung him and his followers but his successor is cut from roughly the same cloth. The erudite Hafeez, known to his team-mates as Professor, has been Pakistan's most improved cricketer over the last two years. Given the respect he may have earned in that period, captaincy seemed inevitable. Like Misbah, he too has suffered being a discard, only to rediscover his game and skills when given another chance. Pakistan's immediate success in the format, at least, depends on how fast they embrace this change.
Sri Lanka are not making drastic changes yet, sticking to the same group that performed creditably in Australia though they limped out exhausted in the Asia Cup. A potential banana peel for the hosts in preparation for the World Twenty20 is the lack of match practice in this format as a unit. They're playing after a six-month layoff, with only three games planned in the lead-up to September. The planned Sri Lanka Premier League (SLPL) will serve as a warm-up but Jayawardene is confident the games are sufficient practice.
What Jayawardene could do with is better support. Sangakkara endured a tepid IPL by his standards and Tillakaratne Dilshan wasn't good enough to command a regular spot in the XI (10 games) unlike Jayawardene (16). The trio firing in unison will be key to trumping the best spin attack in the world. England managed to negate the group of Saeed Ajmal, Hafeez and Afridi with such consummate ease in the one-dayers in UAE that it surprised everyone, including themselves. Sri Lanka may not be as spin-heavy, but the emergence of seam-bowling allrounders in Thisara Perera and Angelo Mathews gives Jayawardene more options.
The limited-overs contests aside, what would give Sri Lanka greater satisfaction is success in the Tests. The fallout of Muttiah Muralitharan's retirement remains - they have won just one Test since. Instances of fast bowlers breaking down have increased the burden on their lone quality spinner, Rangana Herath. They now have to rectify those problems against the toughest subcontinent opponents. When Pakistan last visited in 2009, two incredible collapses gave Sri Lanka the series after just two games. The foundations appear less shaky for Pakistan this time, as demonstrated in their 3-0 whitewash of England, achieved through patience at the crease and unrelenting pressure provided by a varied spin attack.
Current form gives Pakistan the edge but Sri Lanka can swing it their way if their batsmen make an early statement.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo