RAWALPINDI: The moment of truth has finally arrived for Pakistan to play host to Test cricket for the first time in 10 years and nine months.
From Wednesday onwards Sri Lanka — who ironically were the last visiting side to play at the highest level in this country — would be bidding to extend their dominance over Pakistan here at the Pindi Cricket Stadium.
Over the years Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been inseparable cricketing brothers because it was on Pakistan’s insistence that Sri Lanka were granted Test status, rather belatedly by the game’s governing body the International Cricket Council, in 1981.
The camaraderie among these two friendly nations was glimpsed by the mingling of past with the present as Javed Miandad and Bandula Warnapura, respective skippers of Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the first-ever Test between their countries in March 1982 at Karachi, were part of the special photo-call during the trophy unveiling alongside current leaders Azhar Ali and Dimuth Karunaratne. While Miandad and Karunaratne stood on side, Azhar and Warnapura were on the other side.
These teams have competed in 53 Tests since 1982 with Pakistan slightly ahead with 19 victories to Sri Lanka’s 16. Pakistan’s last win was in Pallekele during the 2015 tour of the island, while Sri Lanka won the previous series in the UAE 2-0 by close margins and also been winners — by a slender two-wicket difference — in the only Test they played in this old-fashioned city of just above eight million people.
The venue, which made its international debut in December 1993 when Zimbabwe were the guests in the inaugural Test, has undergone a facelift in recent months with a new block now hosting the media centre across the main pavilion building. But while the overall structure of the ground remains literally the same, the winter is gradually moving to its natural progression as it is gettong colder with each passing day, the lack of adequate daylight would be a major talking point. On top of it, the meteorological department has forecast rain on Thursday and Friday — the second and third days of the scheduled fixture.
Sri Lanka, who are currently two spots above the eighth-ranked Pakistan, will be playing their first series since sharing the home series 1-1 with New Zealand last August. Pakistan are on a hiding as they go the 152nd Test on home soil on the back of six successive defeats in South Africa last season and Australia recently after the rot began during the final game of the three-match series in Abu Dhabi last year which enabled New Zealand clinch the series.
Pakistan’s morale is on the low side in terms of results but their spirits must on high as none of the current squad has played a Test on the home soil until now. Therefore, this factor alone is enough to make Pakistan charged up with the challenge of getting back into the winning habit.
Azhar Ali, the embattled Pakistan skipper who averages just 26.07 this year, had no qualm in saying Sri Lanka are a dangerous team with ex-captains Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal adding loads of experience. And Azhar’s pre-series assumption is spot because Sri Lanka’s previous series abroad was in South Africa where they made history by becoming the first Asian country to win the series in the Rainbow Nation just days after Faf du Plessis’ men trounced Pakistan.
The visitors, however, suffered a major blow on eve of their departure for Pakistan when it was reported that senior paceman Suranga Lakmal has pulled out of the series after contracting dengue fever. The 32-year-old was the only link from the ill-fated series of 2009 and has been easily the best bowler in recent overseas series. However, his replacement Asitha Fernando is only going to available for the selection for the final match of the two-Test series.
Coming to the upcoming clash — with the start brought forward by 15 minutes to make up for possible loss of overs due shortened daylight hours — the presence of the familiar figure of Mickey Arthur as Sri Lanka’s head coach adds a fair amount of spice to what should be an engrossing battle of attrition, regardless of how would the pitch behaves over the five days. At a glance the playing surface does looks juicy enough to convince both Misbah-ul-Haq and Arthur to opt for a three-pronged pace attack. Pakistan are almost certain to rely on seamer Mohammad Abbas in the lead role with the left-armer Shaheen Shah Afridi and teenager Nasim Shah in support alongside spinner Yasir Shah.
If that’s the case then it may sound harsh on both Usman Khan Shinwari, who is yet to be capped at the Test level, and the recalled batsman Fawad Alam. The latter is almost unlikely to play his fourth Test after being recalled to the side after a gaping 10 years on the sidelines on the evidence Haris Sohail getting extensive bowling spells during Tuesday’s practice session.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, are contemplating whether to bring in the slow left-armer Lasith Embuldeniya as the third spin option behind all-rounders Dilruwan Perera and Dhananjaya de Silva or go for three pacemen in Vishwa Fernando, Lahiru Kumara and Kasun Rajitha. On the batting front, Karunaratne will surely have a new opening partner in Oshada Fernando, judging by Lahiru Thirimanne’s struggles in recent Tests.
Overall, the history is against Pakistan, who have never beaten Sri Lanka in their backyard since the 1991-92 season. A lot have certainly changed since those peaceful times. Now the foremost priority is given to security-related issues. The Pindi Cricket Stadium has been surrounded since Sunday by more than 4,000 personnel who have cordoned off the arena in a radius of two kilometres since last Friday. But no matter whatever the hurdles are Pakistan must find ways and means to beat this Sri Lankan side.
PAKISTAN: Shan Masood, Imam-ul-Haq, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq, Haris Sohail, Mohammad Rizwan, Yasir Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Nasim Shah, Mohammad Abbas, Abid Ali, Fawad Alam, Usman Khan Shinwari, Imran Khan, Kashif Bhatti.
SRI LANKA: Dimuth Karunaratne (captain), Oshada Fernando, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Dhananjaya de Silva, Niroshan Dickwella, Dilruwan Perera, Lasith Embuldeniya, Vishwa Fernando, Kasun Rajitha, Lahiru Kumara, Kusal Perera, Lakshan Sandakan, Lahiru Thirimanne.
Umpires: Richard Kettleborough (England) and Michael Gough (England).
TV umpire: Richard Illingworth (England).
Match referee: Andy Pycroft (Zimbabwe).
Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2019