Tour review

Pakistan v Sri Lanka in the UAE

Test matches (3): Pakistan 1, Sri Lanka 0
One-day internationals (5): Pakistan 4, Sri Lanka 1
Twenty20 international (1): Pakistan 1, Sri Lanka 0

Saeed Ajmal is pleased after his five-for, Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Dubai, 4th day, October 29, 2011
Variety show: Saeed Ajmal's unorthodox off-spin picked up 18 Sri Lankan wickets. © AFP
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A postcard before this series would not have painted an enticing prospect: played on neutral territory in the UAE, with the weather still unreasonably warm in October and November, and between two middling teams on surfaces known to roll over and die... No, in an age of cricket overkill, this could easily have passed by in a haze of apathy. The familiarity of the clash would not have helped. Few contests reassert both the constricted nature of Test cricket and the rushed, repetitive make-up of its calendar better than this one: if India-Sri Lanka can feel like a weekly commitment, then Pakistan-Sri Lanka is fortnightly. After this tour, the two sides had contested 31 games in 11 bilateral series (counting Tests, one-day internationals and Twenty20s separately) since the start of 2006. Just for good measure, they had also played nine times in multi-team tournaments in the same period.

And yet there was an honest, old-world charm to the matches, evoked most vividly in the sedate rate of scoring in the Tests. Pakistan chugged along at 2.66 runs per over, while Sri Lanka were marginally less slow at 2.75. Even in the 50-over matches, the highest total was a very retro 257.

The weather was actually more pleasant than expected - an early winter, smirked locals - and one session was even rained off. The surfaces for the Tests were fair: all three could have produced results had Pakistan not spilled seven chances in Abu Dhabi and rain not wiped out the final morning in Sharjah. And though Pakistan were good value for their series wins in all three formats, this was an honest tussle between one side gently on the way up and another hurriedly on the way down. By the end, Sri Lanka had gone 14 Tests without ever looking much like winning any of them.

Their bowling was callow, though there was a heartbeat of hope in the boyish energy of Nuwan Pradeep Fernando and the perseverance of Chanaka Welagedara. That area of weakness, though, was excusable given Sri Lanka's Test side had lost not only Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga to retirement but, crucially, back-up bowlers such as Nuwan Kulasekara (to injury), Thilan Thushara Mirando (loss of form) and Ajantha Mendis (the mysteries of selection).

It was actually Sri Lanka's batting that was the culprit, a sly one whose frailties had long been lost in the feats of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Sangakkara scored 30% of their runs in the Tests, and it felt double that. But a poor series for Jayawardene meant the top of the order (Thilan Samaraweera was overlooked for the tour) was less secure than the bottom. The over-reliance on this pair was most obvious in the Sharjah one- dayer: when they were parted after a stand of 102, Sri Lanka needed only 46 with six wickets left. Within eight overs and 19 runs, they were all out.

While this was miserable for Tillekeratne Dilshan - he had now endured six successive Test and one-day series defeats since taking over as captain - the tour continued a good year for Misbah-ul-Haq. The series wins meant Pakistan remained unconquered in bilateral contests in 2011, apart from losing a one- off Twenty20 international in the Caribbean. Much of the opposition was admittedly undistinguished but, had they been offered those results at the start of the year, after Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer were cast out, Pakistan would have grabbed them.

The side was moulded very much in the image of Misbah: pragmatic, safe, the flair rationed, not non-existent. It was the cause of some heartburn for Pakistan's fans, uncomfortable with such a man and approach, but given their recent batting horrors (eight Test totals under 150 in 2009 and 2010) the caution was soothing.

What adventure there was came from the bowlers. Spin played a bigger part than usual for Pakistan in 2011, and Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman were again good. But the earnest Junaid Khan made a much-needed pace impact, especially as clouds surrounded the continued selection of his fellow left-armer Wahab Riaz. It was also an important series for Umar Gul, now Pakistan's most experienced fast bowler and expected to lead the attack rather than back up a cast of more gifted but erratic characters. He took 14 wickets in the Tests, a fine return but, as has been the case with him before, he fell away in one format (one-day internationals this time) after success in another.

With Shahid Afridi back to orchestrate the limited-overs triumph, it meant Pakistan were in rude health - not bad considering they were in effect coachless: Mohsin Khan was the interim, yanked from his day job as chief selector, but a decidedly cosmetic one. It hardly mattered, as he contributed to a happy - almost unnerving - calm inside the dressing-room.

Match reports for

1st Test: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Abu Dhabi, Oct 18-22, 2011
Report | Scorecard

2nd Test: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Dubai (DSC), Oct 26-29, 2011
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3rd Test: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Sharjah, Nov 3-7, 2011
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1st ODI: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Dubai (DSC), Nov 11, 2011
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2nd ODI: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Dubai (DSC), Nov 14, 2011
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3rd ODI: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Dubai (DSC), Nov 18, 2011
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4th ODI: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Sharjah, Nov 20, 2011
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5th ODI: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Abu Dhabi, Nov 23, 2011
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Only T20I: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Abu Dhabi, Nov 25, 2011
Report | Scorecard

© John Wisden & Co.