Sri Lanka v Pakistan ODIs review June 19, 2012

Five lessons from the series

The ODI series saw the emergence of Azhar Ali, the success of Sri Lanka's flexible batting order and the fragility of Pakistan's fielding

The rise of Azhar Ali
Azhar Ali may not take too kindly to being labelled a 'Test player' anymore. With a reputation for being a patient, stodgy batsman, Azhar had played just four ODIs and opened once before the tour of Sri Lanka. He managed to make fifty in his first outing as an opener, in the UAE against England, but didn't look an automatic choice for the starting line-up, with ODI specialists already identified for that position. An average of 33.25 in four innings was good enough to make the squad for Sri Lanka, but an injury to Nasir Jamshed gave him another opportunity at the top. Pakistan didn't send for another opener to join the squad. Clearly, Misbah-ul-Haq had seen something in him which others couldn't. Misbah wanted a solid player capable of facing the two new balls at either end and Azhar was his preferred choice. He didn't have to prove his ability to occupy the crease. The surprise element was his breezy strike-rate and ability to find the boundaries through orthodox cricketing shots. However, he tended to get bogged down when support wasn't forthcoming from the other end, and his more experienced colleagues were all culpable. Both his half-centuries came in losing causes. Nevertheless, Misbah was satisfied enough to term him a long-term opening prospect. At the end of the series, his average had risen to 43.75. Easily the biggest positive to come out of a disappointing series for Pakistan.

The weather
It could have been worse. The scheduling and choice of venues left many fearing multiple washouts as June is the month of the southwest monsoon in Sri Lanka. While the Twenty20s were played at the relatively dry Hambantota, three of the five ODIs were in Colombo, where rains were forecast on all three days. No games were scheduled in the dry zone of Dambulla. Pallekele had its share of interruptions for the first match, but it was completed within a day. The worst fears were confirmed when the first of the three Colombo games was washed out. That prompted Pakistan to ask for reserve days, which were granted. The fourth ODI too had an interruption but thankfully for the players and fans, rain kept away for the fifth. Bizarrely, the rain largely stayed away during the non-match days. One washout in five wasn't as bad as predicted, but it should serve as a lesson for the administrators when planning for future tours.

Fielding lapses galore
It was a routine at every press conference to see a forlorn Misbah moan about Pakistan's fielding. The ground fielding especially left much to be desired. Suffice to say it cost them the chance of squaring the series as the lapses were most embarrassing in the final ODI. Pakistan failed on occasions to get behind the line of the ball and time the dive. Sohail Tanvir's footwork topped it all. In a close finish, those extra runs were a bonus for Sri Lanka. Another costly miss was Umar Gul's drop off Kumar Sangakkara in the 4th ODI during his innings of 97. The cameras would regularly pan to the fielding coach Julien Fountain, embarrassed at what he had seen. Was it the rustiness of a two-month layoff?

Sri Lanka's flexibility
A factor in Sri Lanka's success as a batting unit was the flexibility in their options. Except Tillakaratne Dilshan's opening slot, none of the other positions were set in stone. Mahela Jayawardene realised that clustering the seniors at the top was a gamble, which didn't pay off at the start, so he set an example by dropping himself down the order and giving Dinesh Chandimal more overs to play himself in. Jayawardene said the players had been conditioned to be more flexible and adjust according to the match situation. The presence and form of the two allrounders in Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera gave Sri Lanka the freedom to experiment.

The pitches
Another often repeated statement by Misbah was about the conditions, which seemed to have challenged his batsmen more. The trend of batting pitches seems to be changing in Sri Lanka, with even totals under 250 proving competitive. In the post-Muralitharan era, the pitches have had more grass and are harder. In this series, the rain has made it tougher for the batsmen, as was the case in Pallekele where the seam movement resembled that of the early English summer. As a result, it forced Pakistan to rethink their combination to the point where, for the final ODI, they let go of their best bowler Saeed Ajmal for the fast bowler Mohammad Sami.

Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo