Atapattu promises fresh approach in Bank Alfalah Cup
Marvan Atapattu's leadership skills will be under the microscope as Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Pakistan start a triangular series at the Rangiri Dambulla Stadium on Saturday. And, after a tedious two-Test series, marred by defensive thinking, it comes as a relief to hear the new one-day leader announcing positive intentions.
Tillakaratne, Sri Lanka's Test captain, won few admirers for his guarded approach during the Test series and, for Atapattu, this seven-match tri-series thus provides an early opportunity to persuade the selectors that there was no need to spilt the Test and one-day captaincy. Despite bouts of dizziness since being clunked on the head by Daniel Vettori at Kandy, Atapattu is determined to play in Sri Lanka's first game against Pakistan on Saturday.
Atapattu, 32, has promised a fresh and innovative approach during his tenure, believing that Sri Lanka have become "somewhat predictable and one-dimensional" in the limited-overs game. "Our opponents have become wiser to our game-plans and we must become more flexible in our pattern of play," he said. "We should be able to react to new and unexpected situations."
First, though, Atapattu has demanded a "100% improvement in the field", more from his middle order, which he says "must shoulder more responsibility" and more from the support bowlers, whom he feels have coasted too long behind the proven class of Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan.
But although Sri Lanka may have become predictable, on home soil they have developed a system for winning matches that works. Their one-day record in Sri Lanka is phenomenal - they have not lost a single series or tournament since India clinched the Independence Cup in July 1998. So despite a lacklustre performance in the recent Sharjah Cup, when they picked a side that lacked batting depth, Sri Lanka start as favourites for the tournament.
They have also strengthened their squad, recalling Mahela Jayawardene, who has also been handed the vice-captaincy, Russel Arnold and Romesh Kaluwitharana - all of whom are expected to play. Kaushalya Weereratne, a medium-paced outswinging allrounder who took a five-wicket haul against Pakistan earlier in the week, has also returned to the fold after two years.
He will compete with Sri Lanka's spin bowling allrounders - Kaushal Lokuarachchi, Kumar Dharmasena and Upul Chandana - for two spots in the middle order. Having taken a five-wicket haul against Pakistan in a warm-up game during the week, and considering the strong wind that blows across this open stadium that would assist his swing, Weereratne may start.
Pakistan, meanwhile, have kept faith with their youngsters, ignoring the likes of Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Saqlain Mushtaq, Saeed Anwar and Azhar Mahmood. They have welcomed back Shoaib Akhtar to provide more punch to the fast bowling, but his famously inflated ego is being held in check after a public dressing down by Pakistan's cricket chief, Tauqir Zia, who has made it crystal clear that he cannot afford to step out of line again.
Young or old, a Pakistan side always contains talent, and Rashid Latif, who was persuaded out of retirement after the selectors' purge, has been entrusted with the responsibility of gluing the team together. He could not have dreamed for a better start at Sharjah, where Pakistan waltzed to victory, playing with flair and energy, but he expects this series to be altogether different.
"This is going to be much tougher and I have already told my players what they can expect. On current form, I would rate New Zealand and Sri Lanka as better teams than our present outfit. This Pakistan side is still in the process of rebuilding and finding its feet."
New Zealand have been bolstered by the return of their one-day specialists - Chris Cairns, Chris Harris, Andre Adams, Kyle Mills and Chris Nevin - but news that Cairns has yet another injury, this time a side strain that will prevent him from bowling, has caused some frustration for the management. With Scott Styris also not able to bowl a full quota of overs, the balance of the side has been affected. Vettori's ankle has healed sufficiently for him to play.
Stephen Fleming believes his side are better placed to cause an upset in foreign conditions that they have been for a while: "We have a couple of experienced heavyweights coming back into the side and are looking forward to the series a lot. Both of these teams have been tough for us to beat in the past in these conditions, but I think we are a bit better equipped to deal with them this time - we have a good chance."
Sri Lanka (likely) 1 Marvan Atapattu (capt), 2 Sanath Jayasuriya, 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Mahela Jayawardene (v-capt), 5 Romesh Kaluwitharana, 6 Russel Arnold, 7 Upul Chandana, 8 Kaushalya Weeraratne, 9 Chaminda Vaas, 10 Prabath Nissanka, 11 Muttiah Muralitharan
Pakistan (likely) 1 Taufeeq Umar, 2 Mohammad Hafeez, 3 Younis Khan, 4 Yousuf Youhana, 5 Faisal Iqbal, 6 Shoaib Malik, 7 Abdur Razzaq, 8 Rashid Latif, 9 Danish Kaneria, 10 Shoaib Akhtar, 11 Mohammad Sami.