Should Pakistan play an extra batsman?
Pakistan came in to the ODI series with the recent head-to-head record overwhelmingly in their favour. A big reason for their consistency, not only against Sri Lanka, is their penetrative and balanced bowling attack. The presence of two spin-bowling allrounders has given them the option of playing more specialists, depending on the conditions and opposition.
For all their strengths as a unit, Pakistan now find themselves in a predicament similar to Sri Lanka's after the first ODI at Pallekele. Their bowlers may have conceded 280 against an inconsistent batting line-up, but as the captain Misbah-ul-Haq conceded, the batsmen had to shoulder the blame for a heavy defeat.
Both teams have gambled in the two matches so far. In the first game, Sri Lanka invested their senior-most batsmen at the top, but in the process exposed a relatively inexperienced middle order. It prompted a reshuffle and helped them double their score in considerably better batting conditions two days later. For the hosts, it was a matter of identifying the ideal batting positions for their line-up, which has a mixture of youth and experience. Pakistan gambled by playing just five specialist batsmen in both games. It didn't matter in the first game, where they were chasing 136, but in the second, they were caught short in their big chase of 281.
It has put Pakistan in a scenario where they're made to rethink their composition. Unlike Sri Lanka, it isn't merely a case of playing around with the batting order. It's about bringing in the extra specialist, at the cost of a bowler, to give themselves more security.
Misbah, however, didn't drop any hints. "We will have a look at the conditions, see the wicket and decide," was his straightforward response on the eve of the third ODI at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo.
The pitch at Pallekele was seamer-friendly for the opening ODI, aided by the recent rain and moisture. It prompted a three-man seam attack, which shut Sri Lanka out of the game before the Pakistan batsmen could pad up. Pakistan retained the composition for the second game - albeit weakened by Mohammad Sami's absence - but later had to digest the truth that if the bowlers have a forgettable day, the pressure piles up on a batting line-up low on resources.
It compounds when the seniors fail. On the one hand, it can be seen an ideal opportunity for someone like Umar Akmal to show he has the temperament to occupy the crease, knock the singles and marshal the middle-and lower-order. It could also boost his chances of a Test recall. After Younis Khan and Misbah failed to make an impact, it left the lower middle order much to do, increasing the responsibilities on Azhar Ali, who worked hard for his 96. He dispelled the tag of being a stodgy Test player by breezing to his fifty, off the same number of balls. If only support was more forthcoming at the other end.
Akmal got a poor decision, and it left Shahid Afridi a lot to do. Afridi has shown in the past that he can play responsibly after a top-order collapse, like in Sharjah against the same opposition last year. However, inconsistency has been his biggest enemy, which explains why, by his own admittance, he's a bowling allrounder.
Misbah was honest in his assessment of the team's failure. "I have always felt that a strong middle-and lower-order is important if we have to win games. From the position we were in, we should have at least scored 250-260 runs. It should have been a closer game."
The bright spot was the ease with which Azhar settled into his new role as opener. "He's got a fine temperament and technically one of the better batsmen in our side," Misbah said. "With the two new balls at either end it's important we have a batsman who has the technique to face the new ball and especially in Sri Lanka where the ball does a bit early on. I think he can be a consistent performer for Pakistan in the opening slot."
The defeat has sent signals to the seniors, including Misbah, to step up. But picking another specialist, like Asad Shafiq, wouldn't hurt either.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo