SL should be wary of Ajmal - Misbah
Of all the promising battles in Pakistan's series in Sri Lanka, Saeed Ajmal's race for wickets against Rangana Herath may be the highest quality match-up. They are the only two spinners ranked in the top ten for Test bowlers, and each has held a place there for some years now. In a two-match series played on a traditionally dry deck in Galle, and on an SSC surface that was a dustbowl in its last match eight days ago, each team's lead spin bowler has the potential to define the series.
They are vastly different bowlers, though their numbers have been similar over the past three years. Herath is foremost a disciple of flight, guile and unerring persistence, while Ajmal rips out of his wrist, then dips and spins it at the other end.
But in the last series, in the UAE, they shared something of a common fate. Neither spinner was as effective as he might have liked. Ajmal went at 42.10 for his 10 wickets in three Tests, and while Herath topped the wicket-takers' list jointly, with 14 scalps, he wasn't at his best as well, taking his wickets at 36.64. On the final day in Sharjah, Herath conceded 100 runs in 19 overs, as Pakistan ran down 302 at a run rate of 5.27.
But Sri Lanka's success against Ajmal in the UAE does not necessarily mean they have worked out how to disarm him, Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq said. He had been more effective on his most recent tour to Sri Lanka in 2012, when he claimed 15 wickets at 29.93.
"I don't think Ajmal is less of a threat against Sri Lanka," Misbah said on the eve of the Galle Test. "That's more dependent on the conditions and the pitches you're getting, sometimes. In Abu Dhabi and Dubai the wickets were more grassy and more suitable for seam bowling. That's why most of the spinners - even Rangana Herath - weren't particularly impressive there. If there's turn, and if there's a little bit of grip, he's going to be a major threat for the batsmen."
By that same token, Herath would be expected to be a greater menace as well, but Misbah was confident of his batsmen's ability to defuse him, even if Pakistan have gained a collective reputation for being weak against left-arm spin. Perhaps they will be encouraged that Herath has not been as penetrative as he once was. He took a five-wicket haul in his last Test-match innings, at the SSC, but he had bowled 90 overs for his nine wickets in that match.
"I think we played Herath pretty well in the last series," Misbah said. "It's more or less the same batting order, and the same guys who will play him again. Everybody is confident about that. He is one of the leading wicket-takers of Sri Lanka, but at the moment the confidence level of all our batsmen is very good against him. We'll try to play him like we did in the last series."
The primacy of spin does not render quicks impotent in Sri Lanka, as South Africa proved in July, and with damp weather expected to be around for the Galle Test, seam bowlers may have some extra help. The abrasiveness of the surface, and the cross-breeze off the sea also lend themselves to reverse-swing, which had been a feature of Dale Steyn's five-wicket haul in the Test here last month.
"We've played a lot of cricket here in Sri Lanka," Misbah said. "You could say these conditions are not much different from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. But in Galle especially, there is a little bit of seam movement and movement in the air. That's something the seamers are really interested in. You need to bowl well and as batsmen, you need to negotiate the seam bowlers really well.
"But everyone knows that in their own conditions, Sri Lanka are a really good team, so you need to play hard, disciplined cricket to come good against them."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando