Sarfaraz Ahmed must feel like he is always sitting on a hot stove. After a loss, he has people questioning his fitness. After a win the same people go ‘unpredictable Pakistan, mercurial Pakistan, cornered tigers’ and what have you. A week into the World Cup and the team has already experienced a roller coaster of sorts as they prepare to run into Sri Lanka.
It says much about Sri Lanka’s position that a win against Afghanistan is looked at as an upset in several quarters. That game ended with a Lasith Malinga war cry after nailing a perfect yorker, and Malinga will know that creaking knees or not, he’ll still have to be the leader of the attack, and a leader of sorts apart from that too.
New ODI captain Dimuth Karunaratne is still finding his feet as a 50-overs batsman. Angelo Mathews’ form has deserted him. Dinesh Chandimal is cooling his heels at home, and Niroshan Dickwella, seen as part of Sri Lanka’s next-gen batting is somewhat perplexingly in Belgaum, trying to prove a point by scoring runs for Sri Lanka A.
Sri Lanka can draw some solace from the fact that Pakistan are also in a somewhat similar space with one close win and one heavy defeat, except their win was against favourites England. And unlike Sri Lanka, Pakistan’s batting has turned a corner – the off-day against West Indies notwithstanding – and brings with it hope that tall totals can be put up regularly, like they did against England in the lead-up to the World Cup, to allow their sometimes erratic bowlers enough leeway.
The return to form of Mohammad Amir and Shadab Khan spells out hope, as does Wahab Riaz’s promise of breathing fire once again.
But will these protagonists get a chance to exhibit their skills? The forecast on Thursday is dire. There’s 90% chance of rain, and those planning to arrive in Bristol can take time to tick off essentials like windcheaters and raincoats.
Pakistan WLLLL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Angelo Mathews unleashes the pull during a training session SLC
In the spotlight
Angelo Mathews seemingly can’t buy a run. In two games, he’s lasted all of 11 balls and has made two ducks. In the first game, he was roughed up by the pace of Matt Henry and Lockie Ferguson, before falling to a gentle Colin de Grandhomme away-swinger. Against Afghanistan, he was done in by the lack of turn from Mohammad Nabi as an indecisive push resulted in a catch to the slips. He doesn’t bowl and is no more than a ‘safe fielder’, so pressure will be mounting on him with every failure.
Mohammad Amir is expected to be blockbuster, even if not in the Shahid Afridi league. After the ‘will he or won’t he’ merry-go-round around his selection, he was finally included in the World Cup squad. In his first outing, he did himself no harm by picking three wickets in a shellacking. Against England, his cutter proved difficult to negotiate, the scalp of Jos Buttler turning the game around decisively. Under possibly overcast skies, Amir has the stage to bring out that famous old weapon that made the world groove to his tune: swing.
Pakistan have hinted at continuity, while Sri Lanka are likely to bring in Jeevan Mendis in place of Suranga Lakmal if it’s likely to be a full game. Avishka Fernando and Mendis could play in place of Lahiru Thirimanne and Lakmal if it’s a truncated fixture.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Imam-ul-Haq, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Mohammad Hafeez, 5 Sarfaraz Ahmed (capt, wk), 6 Shoaib Malik, 7 Asif Ali, 8 Shadab Khan, 9 Hassan Ali, 10 Mohammad Amir, 11 Wahab Riaz
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Dimuth Karunaratne (capt), 2 Kusal Perera (wk), 3 Lahiru Thirimanne, 4 Kusal Mendis, 5 Angelo Mathews, 6 Dhananjaya de Silva, 7 Thisara Perera, 8 Isuru Udana, 9 Jeevan Mendis/Suraga Lakmal, 10 Lasith Malinga, 11 Nuwan Pradeep
Pitch and conditions
England made light work of a 359 chase against Pakistan just a month ago. If there’s another flat track, combined with the short boundaries, it could result in another hard day for bowlers.
Despite his two ducks, Mathews remains Sri Lanka’s best bet to stem a top order wobble. Since 2017, he’s been dismissed just 20% of the time in less than 20 deliveries. All others have been dismissed 50% of the time in the same period. Promoting Mathews could also bring about a balance to the playing XI if Sri Lanka are looking to slot in allrounder Milinda Siriwardena at No. 6, in place of the misfiring Kusal Mendis, who averages only 21.5 in ODIs since 2018.
Sri Lanka could use Nuwan Pradeep to bounce out Mohammad Hafeez. Pradeep hits the hard lengths and has the pace to generate disconcerting bounce, a troubled area for the Pakistan batsman, who has been out seven times to fast bowlers in 2019.
He may have conceded 83 in the previous game, but Wahab Riaz remains a potent death-bowling option, having taken four wickets off the 28 balls he has bowled in this period. He concedes only 7.3 an over in this phase. Is there a case to reserve him for the end then? He has gone for 8.3 in the first 10, in comparison. His wickets of Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes at the death against England proved game-changing.
Stats and trivia
In 56 innings since 2017, Sri Lanka have been bowled out 32 times – more than once every alternate innings.
In ODIs since 2017, Sri Lanka have been the quickest to lose half their side – they lose five wickets inside 29 overs on an average. Pakistan’s average for the same stands at 34.4 overs.
Shadab Khan is one short of 50 ODI wickets, while Hafeez needs one half-century for 50 ODI fifties
“I believe this is the best batting order we have. I’ve played a lot with Kusal Perera, I have faith in him. Thirimanne is a reliable player who can pace his innings. Middle order is okay.”
Dimuth Karunaratne is happy with the options he has.
“Since we won, it took off a lot of pressure definitely, having gone through that string of defeats. Psychologically, that lifts a huge weight from their shoulders.”
Pakistan’s batting coach Grand Flower is a relieved man.