One-day internationals (3): Pakistan 2, Sri Lanka 1
It almost didn't happen and, rather like the Iraq war, most wished it hadn't. Such was the swirl of discontent after a soulless World Cup, no sponsors were found for this one-day series until a few days before the start. Broadcasters were backward in coming forward, too: an offshore series barely three weeks after the darkness of Barbados was nobody's cup of anything. The tournament was postponed by a week, sponsors (local telecoms conglomerate Warid) and TV channels were found, as they always are eventually, and Abu Dhabi's space-age stadium attracted crowds not far short of 10,000 for each of the three matches… but starriness eluded the grasp of Sharjah's south-western cousin.
Pakistan were without Inzamam-ul-Haq, who retired from one-day cricket after the shock of World Cup exit and Bob Woolmer's death, and Shoaib Akhtar, who said with typical ambiguity that he was fully fit, but not fit. Younis Khan - vital middle-order cog, serial captaincy rejecter and all-round nice guy - was busy in the cooler climes of Yorkshire. Sri Lanka also had part of their spine in England, with Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara and Chaminda Vaas all turning out in county cricket.
And yet Pakistan had to take the series seriously, because it marked the start of another new era, their umpteenth in the last decade. The air was fresh under Shoaib Malik, the new young captain, although with only two uncapped players (all-rounder Fawad Alam and left-arm medium-pacer Najaf Shah, neither of whom played until the dead-rubber final game), "new" was perhaps not quite the right word. Some at least returned from forced exiles with points to prove. More intriguingly, at least for the sake of the great coaching debate from which cricket can never quite move on, they were without a coach: Talat Ali, the manager, doubled up.
Sri Lanka had no such baggage to shed, and it showed. That they turned up politely, when reason existed to be peeved with the haste of it all, was victory enough for the organisers. They competed with jaded cheer, but against opponents with more to play for it wasn't quite enough. In saying afterwards that his side was suffering from post-World Cup fatigue, Michael Tissera, Sri Lanka's outgoing manager, was stating what Basil Fawlty would have called the bleedin' obvious. A series defeat was not a fitting way for Sri Lanka to bid farewell to Tom Moody, their excellent coach, although they did at least win his last game in charge.
The Abu Dhabi Cricket Council also had reasons to be cheerful: this was their second successful one-day series in two years. They were promised more games by Naseem Ashraf, the Pakistan board chairman, enhancing their bid to become the 21st-century Sharjah. Their large expatriate population will be happy too. The crowds were healthy and energetic, especially for the first two games, when a substantial Pashtun presence feasted hungrily on Shahid Afridi's unique approach to professional cricket. A memory of an Afridi special, after all, is no bad thing to take home, wherever in the world home may be.
Match reports for
1st ODI: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Abu Dhabi, May 18, 2007
2nd ODI: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Abu Dhabi, May 20, 2007
3rd ODI: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Abu Dhabi, May 22, 2007