Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do, when they come for you? Bazball, Bazball…
Yup, sorry folks, even this - a preview of a Sri Lanka-Pakistan Test - is no safe haven from utterances of Bazball. Though, in my defence, this is far from a pained reference. Bazball's slightly less exciting cousin, Pakball (or officially, the Pakistan Way), is very real, and we have to talk about it.
To briefly recap, Pakistan had not won a Test match in 12 months, a period in which they were engulfed by a brand of cricket that can only be described as… woah, sorry dozed off for a minute there… played against a Sri Lanka side that, of late, have had only one way of winning Tests at home - playing exclusively in Galle.
Quite honestly, the scene could not have been better set for a Galle classic, one that would have called for rain, a staunch rearguard by the visiting side, and a final-day Prabath Jayasuriya-led capitulation. But the OG agents of chaos that are Pakistan didn't follow the script. To be fair, they hadn't followed it last year either, but that win in 2022 was more conventional.
Sri Lanka had no answer. Sure, Jayasuriya picked up some more wickets, but he himself might confess they were the least enjoyable he has ever grabbed in Galle. Pakistan skipped along at four an over for most of the Test, playing genuinely exciting cricket, while fans of both sides were left more than a little bemused as to what they were witnessing.
So here we are looking ahead to the second Test at the SSC, a ground where the trials by spin will presumably be less and one where the batters could conceivably bat even more freely. Pakistan will no doubt be itching to take their new philosophy for another spin, while Sri Lanka will instead focus on the areas they know they need to improve on.
After all, whatever Pakistan's approach might have been, there is little excuse for the lack of application shown by several of Sri Lanka's batters, while the disparity in fielding between the two sides might have been the single-most important factor in deciding the first Test.
Sri Lanka LWWLL (last five completed matches, most recent first) Pakistan WDDLL
In the spotlight: Kusal Mendis and Saud Shakeel
Each team has a player who frustrates and thrills fans in equal measure, and in Kusal Mendis, Sri Lanka have that player and then some. Which is quite a statement when you consider that he has scores of 140 and 245 among his last four Test innings. But then you see figures of 12 and 18 in his last two, and you begin to understand what causes the frustration. Mendis is supremely talented and had been earmarked for greatness from a young age. At 28, he is now hitting his prime. Both he and Sri Lanka need to ensure those are put to good use.
Six matches in and Saud Shakeel has an average of 90.88 in Tests - and it would have been more had he managed to stay unbeaten during Pakistan's successful chase. You, however, wouldn't put it past him extending that average to triple digits by the end of this tour, as Pakistan seem to have found a player with a rare combination of adaptability and application. At 27, much like Mendis, Shakeel too is heading into his peak. If he proves as obdurate and assertive in Colombo as he did in Galle, Sri Lanka will have their work cut out for them.
Team news: Asitha Fernando available
Sri Lanka are likely to make one change, with Asitha Fernando back and available having recovered from a bout of dengue fever. Dilshan Madushanka is also an option should Sri Lanka look to add more pace to their line-up.
Pakistan could go in with an unchanged side, though Hasan Ali is available should they opt to go in with an extra seamer.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Abdullah Shafique, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Shan Masood, 4 Babar Azam (capt), 5 Sarfaraz Ahmed (wk), 6 Saud Shakeel, 7 Agha Salman, 8 Noman Ali/Hasan Ali, 9 Naseem Shah, 10 Abrar Ahmed, 11 Shaheen Shah Afridi
Pitch and conditions
The SSC pitch has been known to take some turn on days four and five, but early on will be better for batting. In terms of the weather, unfortunately there's rain predicted for all five days of the Test, though probably not enough to prevent a result.
Stats and trivia
This is the first Test being played at the SSC since 2018. Sri Lanka have won three and lost three of their last six Tests at the ground.
No active bowler from either side has picked up a wicket yet at the SSC.
Saud Shakeel is 182 runs off reaching 1000 Test runs. If he reaches the milestone in this Test, it will make him the fastest Pakistani player to achieve the feat (by innings), and put him in the five fastest ever to achieve it.