RAWALPINDI: Rival captains Dimuth Karunaratne and Azhar Ali both sounded optimistic at the resumption of Test cricket in Pakistan after the tragic events March 2009 when the dastardly terror attacks put serious cast on the future of international cricket returning to the country.

In their pre-series media conference at the Pindi Cricket Stadium on Tuesday, both expressed delight in participating in the landmark two-match series which begins from Wednesday with the opening fixture here in Rawalpindi.

Karunaratne, who skipped the One-day international leg of the split series in September for security reasons, did echo his apprehensions at the start of the presser before turning his attention to the hiring of Mickey Arthur as Sri Lanka’s new head coach after the now dual national of South Africa and Australia had served similar roles with the country of his birth South Africa as well as Australia before Pakistan engaged his services on a three-year term which expired after this this year’s ICC 50-over World Cup.

“For sure having someone with the experience that Mickey brings is a big plus point. But to have joining Sri Lanka only months after leaving Pakistan is definitely a blessing in disguise at this point,” Karunaratne, the experienced 33-year-old opening batsman, observed.

“He [Arthur] has a vast experience of being with our latest opponents [Pakistan] for three years. He knows the inside of each and every player, which is a huge advantage to have. By and large with all these we have some strategy up our sleeves ready against them, which will be executed at the right time.”

Karunaratne added the availability of experienced players would obviously give Sri Lanka edge over an unsettled Pakistan side, while downplaying the security concerns raised by him and some of the other players on eve of the ODI and T20 tour in September.

“We were reluctant when the limited-overs itinerary was planned and refused to come for security reasons. But having said that I must say that Pakistan is a safe place to tour and play. Our confidence was boosted when players who involved in the limited-overs series recommended us to visit here after which we decided to travel,” he said.

“We are, indeed, delighted to be here and the [security] arrangements are much more than satisfactory. We know that Pakistan are in for a tough series because we beat them the previous time we played them in the UAE [in 2017].”

The Sri Lankan captain said the weather won’t hamper his side’s chances of winning the series.

“This is not a new for us. We have played in similar conditions in other countries and it won’t be an excuse if we don’t play well. But I’m pretty confident of winning the series given the strength of our team.”

Azhar, meanwhile, said it was crucial for Pakistan to get a head start against a confident Sri Lanka team, while saying his own form has contributed to team’s recent failings.

“I know that our recent results are extremely disappointing. I won’t make any excuse for this but we must realise that Pakistan are still going through the rebuilding phase which may sound weird to some people,” Azhar pointed out. “As a captain, or whoever is in that role, it is really important to perform. It’s unfortunate that I am going through a really bad patch. I am trying to get into form and despite getting starts in some innings I’m not able to transform those into big runs. Sometime all you need are runs to get things back to normal.

“I am in international cricket now for more than nine years and with such experience the purpose of my career is to think how I can contribute to win games for Pakistan. It is also important for me as captain to score runs and give a strong message across the board.

“The fact we failed so badly in Australia was extremely disappointing for everyone in the squad. We had a tough series there. But moving forward in this home series we see it as an opportunity and advantage to turn things around. It’s a moment of rejoice for not only the players but the nation. We haven’t been able to play Test cricket at home for last 10 years but now with the return of it gives us a wonderful opportunity to get back on the winning track.”

Azhar minced no words in saying Sri Lanka are favourites in the coming matches. “You can never take Sri Lanka easy since they have been always been tough opponents, regardless wherever they are playing at home or away,” the Pakistan captain remarked.

“Their bowling and batting are both very disciplined and if you have to challenge them you really have to come hard and be disciplined. We’ve been lacking both with the bat and ball in our previous series but we have to come back quickly because Test cricket demands discipline and you have been consistent all the time. You can’t win in one session but can lose in one particular session.”

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2019