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Tactics Board: Tackling Hasaranga, Sri Lanka's in-form openers and the toss impact

Where the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Asia Cup final could be won and lost

Before the Asia Cup, Sri Lanka vs Pakistan was a final that not many would have predicted, with India touted as favourites. Before this edition, the two teams last met in the tournament in 2016 when Pakistan beat Sri Lanka by six wickets. Although Sri Lanka emerged victorious against Pakistan in the Super 4 this time, it is tough to predict who holds an edge in this match where toss will play a crucial role.
While Sri Lanka have benefitted with some strong performances by their openers, Pakistan have managed to win some tight games, thanks to their lower and middle order. Both teams have a few issues to deal with. Who will come out on top? Here's a look at some of the factors that could play a key role in the final.
Win toss, win match
Similar to last year's T20 World Cup held in the UAE, the toss has played a major role in the competition. Since the start of 2021, there have been 21 T20Is played at the Dubai International Stadium and only on three occasions has the team batting first won the match. Those three games were played against Scotland, Hong Kong and Afghanistan by India and New Zealand. The Dubai pitch is known to be favourable for chasing because of two factors: dew and the pitch getting faster to bat on under lights.
In the last 21 T20Is, only on one instance has a team that won the toss chosen to bat first. Since 2021, the average first innings winning score in Dubai is in excess of 190. In case teams bat first, they would want to score a minimum of 185 runs to give themselves a good chance. One approach the team batting first could look to do is to keep wickets in hand and then accelerate in the end to ensure they reach beyond par score rather than falling short.
Trial against spin
Surprisingly, both Pakistan and Sri Lanka batters have fared below par against spin this tournament. Barring the duo of Mohammad Nawaz and Mohammad Rizwan, Pakistan batters have been a bit circumspect against spin. The likes of Fakhar Zaman, Iftikhar Ahmed, Babar Azam and Khushdil Shah strike at less than 100 against spin this tournament. Sri Lanka will be looking to capitalise on this weakness of Pakistan. To handle the spinners in the middle overs, Pakistan could promote Shadab Khan and Nawaz, and play their match-ups tactically to catch Sri Lanka off guard.
For Sri Lanka, the gulf in playing spin between Kusal Mendis and the rest is noteworthy. Mendis has scored 86 runs from 46 balls at a strike rate of 186.9 with eight sixes against the spinners. But the likes of Charith Asalanka, Pathum Nissanka and Dasun Shanaka have struggled against spin.
Shanaka has scored 30 off 33 balls while Asalanka has made only seven runs from 15 deliveries against spin. Nissanka, who has a better average among them, has scored 65 runs off 55 balls off spinners. While both Nissanka and Asalanka have been dismissed twice each by spinners in this year's Asia Cup, Shanaka has been removed three times. Pakistan could look to bowl more overs of spin if they can remove Mendis early. Based on the above data about spinners, Shadab is going to be a key player for Pakistan with bat and ball.
The Hasaranga challenge
When Sri Lanka and Pakistan met in the Super 4, Wanindu Hasaranga, who returned with figures of 3 for 21, was the the Player of the Match. He took the key wickets of Babar, Iftikhar and Asif Ali to dent them in the middle overs. Interestingly, Hasaranga's record against Pakistan in T20Is has been way above par compared to other oppositions. He has taken 11 wickets at an average of 9.09 and has conceded just 6.25 runs per over from 96 balls. One of his weapons is the googly and Pakistan's record in this tournament against this particular delivery has been a bit underwhelming. They have scored 72 runs from 63 balls while losing four wickets. One potential plan to counter Hasaranga could be to ensure left-hand batters face him more. In this Asia Cup, all of Hasaranga's six wickets are right-hand batters while the left-hand batters have scored at par.
Getting past the openers of Sri Lanka
Before this Asia Cup, one of the biggest concerns for Sri Lanka was their opening stand. They averaged 19.80 and struck at 117 since January 2022 without creating any impetus in the powerplay. Sri Lanka decided to replace Danushka Gunathilaka with Mendis for the Asia Cup and it has been a refreshing change. Barring the first game against Afghanistan, their openers have led from the front.
Nissanka and Mendis have struck at 143 at an average of 41.6 with four fifties in this competition. Mendis' ability to play spin and Nissanka's to counter pace have been key to their success. Sri Lanka have been the best team in the powerplay in this Asia Cup, scoring at 127.7 and hitting a boundary every 5.5 balls. The openers have also scored around 45% of the runs for Sri Lanka. If Pakistan need to get past Sri Lanka, they should get the openers out early to expose the middle order.

Gaurav Sundararaman is a senior stats analyst at ESPNcricinfo