It is, once more, that time of the Asia Cup again. One match away from the match that never happens. For years, decades, even, the prospect of an India-Pakistan final has teased and tantalised, but remained just out of grasp, leaving the two giants of the subcontinent sportingly and commercially unsatiated. And for most of that time, it is the side Pakistan face tomorrow - Sri Lanka - that has proudly played spoilsport, planting their flag firmly between India and Pakistan, cementing their status as an Asian mainstay. Just twice in the 39-year history of the ODI version of this tournament have Sri Lanka failed to make it to the trophy match, and in the games that matter in this tournament over time, Sri Lanka usually prevail.
Both sides are coming off dispiriting losses to India in their own way. Sri Lanka could have all but booked a ticket to the final had they chased down what appeared a very gettable target of 214 against India on Tuesday, but Dunith Wellalage's heroics with bat and ball fell just short. Pakistan's vanquishing at their biggest rivals' hands was more comprehensive; they lost by a record 228 runs over two horror days that also saw them lose two of their three premier fast bowlers. Naseem Shah has been ruled out of the tournament, and Haris Rauf is almost equally unlikely to feature again.
Sri Lanka appear the more settled side at present; their loss to India was the first in 14 matches dating back to June. Despite being injury-ravaged before the tournament - Wanindu Hasaranga and Dushmantha Chameera's absences were hammer blows - the replacements have proved stellar. The baby-faced 20-year-old left arm spinner Wellalage is the joint-highest wicket-taker of the tournament with nine at an average of 14.66. Fast bowler Matheesha Pathirana is one wicket behind, and Maheesh Theekshana just one further adrift. Sadeera Samarawickrama and Kusal Mendis have shone with the bat at times during this tournament, though not quite against bowling of Pakistan's quality.
Pakistan really just need to draw a line under the India game and keep their eyes on Sunday's prize. A favourable result in the India-Sri Lanka game means Thursday is now a virtual semi-final for both sides, and one strong performance will give them the chance to make amends for it all in the final. Mohammad Wasim, Zaman Khan and Shahnawaz Dahani don't quite boast the same threat as Pakistan's premier fast-bowling trio, but two of them will be paired with Shaheen Afridi. Shadab Khan, who had an indifferent game against India, will try and draw inspiration from the success of Sri Lanka's spinners, who took all ten wickets against India. Pakistan's batting, which hasn't been tested enough and crumpled under pressure against India, is still heavily reliant on the top three. This will be rejigged on Thursday, with Pakistan leaving out Fakhar Zaman, and the new combination will need shoulders broad enough to bear the burden.
Sri Lanka LWWWW (last five completed ODI, most recent first) Pakistan LWWWW
In the spotlight
People might deride the ODI middle overs, but Charith Asalanka loves them. More T20 cricket has meant genuine middle-order, middle-overs specialists in the 50-over format are hard to come by, but in Asalanka, Sri Lanka have one of the best. Since he made his debut, no batter who comes in at number 5 or lower has scored more runs in the format than his 1199, and they come at an average just a shade under 45. Against a Pakistan bowling unit who have struggled conspicuously in this phase, Asalanka could be kryptonite. In their last three matches, Pakistan's bowlers went wicketless from the 15th to the 38th overs, the 10th to the 30th overs, and the 18th onwards, respectively. Simply put, he is at his strongest when Pakistan are at their weakest.
It's concerning enough that Pakistan are overreliant on their top three without one of them going off the boil. Less than five months ago, Fakhar Zaman plundered New Zealand across Karachi and Rawalpindi, scoring centuries in three successive matches. But there has always been a feast-or-famine vibe to his form, and since then, the desert has stretched out all around the oasis. An average of less than 21 and a strike rate under 80 have seen Pakistan decide to make a change and bring in Mohammad Haris at the top of the order. Haris' own explosiveness when the field is up is well-established by now, but most of his success has come in T20 cricket. Whether he can adapt his game to the longer format and go just as hard at the top remains to be seen, but in a potentially low-scoring match, it could go a long way to determining success or failure for Pakistan.
Sri Lanka should look to stick to the combination that nearly brought them success against India, and changes are unlikely.
Pakistan have made five changes, with Fakhar missing out after a run of bad form. Mohammad Haris takes his place. The cut Salman Ali Agha suffered below the eye keeps him out too, with Saud Shakeel taking his place. The two forced fast-bowling changes see Mohammad Wasim and Zaman Khan start, while Mohammad Nawaz comes in for Faheem Ashraf in the allrounder department.
Pakistan: 1 Mohammad Haris, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Babar Azam (capt), 4 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 5 Saud Shakeel, 6 Iftikhar Ahmed, 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Mohammad Nawaz, 9 Mohammad Wasim, 10 Shaheen Shah Afridi, 11 Zaman Khan.
Pitch and conditions
There are showers forecast on Thursday, as there have been for just about every day in Colombo, though enough of a break between them to get plenty of cricket in.
Stats and trivia
Sri Lanka have reached 11 Asia Cup finals, significantly more than either India (9) or Pakistan (5).
Pakistan have won each of their last eight completed ODIs against Sri Lanka.