Sri Lanka's chairman of selectors Ashantha de Mel has said the Sri Lanka batsmen should to be wary of the two Pakistan spinners, Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, during the upcoming Twenty20, ODI and Test series.
"It is the Pakistani spinners we need to be careful of. Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman are of a different class compared to our spinners. Only Rangana Herath comes anywhere close to them," De Mel said.
Offspinner Ajmal and left-arm spinner Rehman have been at the forefront of Pakistan's recent successes. The pair took 43 wickets in Pakistan's 3-0 win over No. 1 ranked England in their last Test series played in the UAE early this year. Ajmal was also the leading wicket-taker with 18 wickets during Sri Lanka's three-Test series against Pakistan in the UAE last year.
"The advantage the Pakistan team has is that it also has batsmen who can be useful bowlers, for instance opener Mohammad Hafeez, who can bowl offbreaks," he said. "This adds a lot of variety to their attack and balances their team nicely.
"Their fast bowlers are quite effective with the reverse swing. That's another area our batsmen have got to be wary of. Pakistan have mastered the art of reverse swing from the era of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Umar Gul and left-arm fast bowler Junaid Khan are very good at using the old ball."
A former fast bowler himself, De Mel said Sri Lanka's fast bowlers need to develop their skills to master reverse swing, an art that needs a lot of practice to be perfected.
Recollecting Sri Lanka's last Test series against England at home which ended in a 1-1 draw, De Mel said the batsmen needed to put up 400-plus totals in the first innings if Sri Lanka are to have any chance of winning. Sri Lanka's highest total in that series was 318 in the Galle Test and they failed to go past the 300-run mark in the Colombo Test.
"At least three of the top five batsmen need to get a big score if we are to come up with competitive totals. Off the middle-order, two of the three most experienced batsmen must score runs," De Mel said, referring to the trio of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera who have a combined tally of 25,001 runs and 73 hundreds in Tests.
De Mel admitted the middle order had been put under pressure due to the poor starts provided by the openers. Sri Lanka tried Tharanga Paranavitana and Lahiru Thirimanne as opening partners with Tillakaratne Dilshan in the series against South Africa and England, but none of them were able to settle into the role.
"I don't think Thirimanne is an opener. He is good in the middle order. We persisted with him because the previous selection committee had picked him as an opener and we wanted to give Thirimanne a fair chance to prove himself. We are thinking of bringing back Paranavitana to open with Dilshan."
Thirimanne, who has been named in Sri Lanka's Twenty20 and ODI squads, bats in the middle order in the shorter versions, but is unlikely to be named in the Test squad. In seven Tests in which he has opened the batting, he has only gone past 50 once.
When questioned why former Test opener Upul Tharanga is not being considered for the position, De Mel said, "Upul's technique against the new ball is suspect. He is playing well away from his body and that is why we have decided to bring him down the order in the ODIs and play him in the middle where he has contributed.
"There's, at present, a paucity of quality opening batsmen in the country. We are looking at Dimuth Karunaratne as an opener for the Sri Lanka A tour to South Africa and also wicketkeeper Kushal Janith Perera, who bats at No. 3, as an opener in the limited-overs version."
The Sri Lanka A team is due to tour South Africa and Zimbabwe next month.
Another youngster Dinesh Chandimal is likely to be named in the Test squad but will find it difficult to make it into a line-up that comprises Dilshan, Paranavitana, Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Samaraweera, Angelo Mathews and Prasanna Jayawardene. De Mel added Mathews would be picked purely as a batsman and may bowl occasionally.
"Our bowlers are not penetrative enough. To win a Test you need to take 20 wickets. What I have observed about our quick bowlers is that they come at you initially around 135 [kph] but are about ten kilometers (per hour) slower when they return for their second spell. The four to five bowlers in the line-up should all contribute to take wickets."
Predicting a close contest during the Test series, De Mel said the pitches used would play a key role. "The side that performs on the day will hold the advantage. I hope we get some decent wickets with some bounce. We make slow and low wickets and end up losing. The P Sara Oval wicket (where Sri Lanka lost to England) was slow and low and lacked bounce."
Sri Lanka and Pakistan play two Twenty20 matches before the ODIs and Tests. De Mel said the selectors had picked the 14-member squad for the two Twenty20s in Hambantota with an eye on the forthcoming World Twenty20 (which will be hosted by Sri Lanka in September).
De Mel said that apart from spinner Ajantha Mendis, who is still recuperating from a back injury and was not considered for selection, Farvez Maharoof and Suranga Lakmal were left out because Nuwan Pradeep and Dilhara Fernando were declared fit.