The Pathirana question, Afghanistan's rustiness, the spin battle, and more

Visitors had last played an ODI in November 2022, even as Sri Lanka prepare for World Cup Qualifiers

Sri Lanka and Afghanistan drew their last series 1-1  •  AFP/Getty Images

Sri Lanka and Afghanistan drew their last series 1-1  •  AFP/Getty Images

The Afghanistan men's side are going to the big show, but Sri Lanka are yet to qualify.
There is nuance to this. In the ODI World Cup Super League, Afghanistan's oppositions were Ireland, Netherlands, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. But then, they barely played ODIs, despite having won 11 out of those 15 games. Sri Lanka played 24 matches, and won only seven, which is why they finished tenth on the Super League table.
It is a testament to Afghanistan's rise - despite major challenges - and to Sri Lanka's ODI collapse, that they meet in Hambantota as evenly-matched outfits. For Afghanistan, this is their first serious preparation for the World Cup in October-November. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, must get their one-day game in gear ahead of the World Cup Qualifiers in Zimbabwe, starting later this month.
Here are some things to look out for in this three-match series.

Will Afghanistan be rusty?

Such is the lot of this team that they have not played a single ODI since November last year, when they were last in Sri Lanka for a series that was drawn 1-1. They have had some T20Is this year, most recently winning 2-1 against Pakistan in Sharjah in March. They've also just recently concluded the Green Afghanistan One Day Cup - their premier List A tournament - during which several of the national squad surged into form.
But they will have challenges in Hambantota - chiefly, Sri Lanka's pace attack, which, unlike the side they played last year, will feature the returning Dushmantha Chameera, and the likes of Lahiru Kumara and Kasun Rajitha.

How will the spinners fare?

For a time, Wanindu Hasaranga could probably claim to be on Rashid Khan's level, but lately, Hasaranga's performances have fallen away. There was a chasm between them at the IPL. Rashid was second-equal on the wicket-takers' list, claiming 27 dismissals, with an economy rate of 8.23. Hasaranga took nine wickets from eight matches, and went at 8.89 an over.
However, both spinners are likely to miss the start of the series. Rashid is out with a back injury. Hasaranga is struggling with a foot complaint. This means extra responsibility will fall on the likes of Maheesh Theekshana - he is fresh from a decent IPL - as also Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi. Afghanistan also have left-arm wristspinner Noor Ahmad in their squad, and he enters the series on the back of 16 wickets in the IPL.
Spinners will, however, have to contend with the furious crosswind that tends to blow in Hambantota. Usually, this means they tempt the batters to play their big shots into the wind.

Is Pathirana ready for internationals?

Though not particularly well-known in Sri Lanka in March, Chennai Super Kings and MS Dhoni made a weapon out of 20-year-old Matheesha Pathirana at the IPL, when they charged him frequently with closing out the innings. Though possessed of an action that is even lower - and arguably slingier - than Lasith Malinga's, Pathirana did not bowl with the new ball, and appeared to have serious limitations.
However, such is the hype around him at present that Sri Lanka may want to try him out. But is he ready for this format? And in matches where there is no Impact Player substitution - like it was in IPL - can he reliably deliver new-ball overs?

Can both teams finish their batting innings better?

Since 2021, Sri Lanka have scored at a run rate of only 6.97 in the last ten overs of an ODI innings. A whopping 39% of the deliveries they have faced in that portion have been dot balls. Clearly, there is a lack of firepower lower down in the middle order, with Dasun Shanaka only sporadically effective, and the likes of Chamika Karunaratne and Hasaranga possessing limited hitting ability.
Perhaps the thinking with bringing Dimuth Karunaratne back is that Sri Lanka will conserve wickets through the innings better, and have the likes of Angelo Mathews, Dhananjaya de Silva or even Charith Asalanka at the crease towards the close.
Afghanistan, meanwhile, have been only slightly better in the last ten since 2021. They have scored at 7.18, with almost 39% of deliveries faced also being dots. Rashid has been their standout finisher in that time.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf