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Reverse swing: The battle kicks off

Sri Lanka has been one of Pakistan’s happiest hunting venues. In 15 Tests in which Pakistan has tackled the Sri Lankan team on its home territory, they have won six tournaments and lost three. This win-loss ratio of 2:00 is one of Pakistan’s best away from home. It is equivalent to Pakistan’s record in New Zealand (29 Tests, 10 wins, five losses), and improved only by Pakistan’s record in Zimbabwe (eight Tests, six wins, one loss) and Bangladesh (five Tests, all won).

Despite this encouraging record, the upcoming series in Sri Lanka has to be approached with great trepidation and care. The days of Sri Lanka being a cricketing pushover are long gone. They have been a frontline side now for nearly two decades, with a solid list of world-class achievements, and the potential to defeat any opponent. This is the Sri Lanka of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawerdene, and Tillakaratne Dilshan; of demonic off-breaks and unorthodox mystery spin; of spirit, courage, tenacity and fight.

Pakistan may have the psychological edge going into this series, having outperformed Sri Lanka in all three forms of the game not too long ago in the Middle East, when the two sides last met. But over-confidence is a deadly poison when facing Sri Lanka.

They are a crafty outfit who know how to make piercing inroads if you ever drop your guard.

In fact Pakistan’s last tour to Sri Lanka, in July-August 2009, did not provide much to cheer about. Although the lone T20 international was won by Pakistan, they lost the ODI series (3-2) as well the Test series (2-0). The Test defeats, in particular, left some particularly painful scars. In the opening Test at Galle, Pakistan were set a modest fourth innings victory target of 168 but collapsed to 117 all out. The next Test, at Colombo, proved an even worse nightmare, as Pakistan crashed to 90 all out after winning the toss, conceding a 150-run first-innings lead from which they couldn’t recover.

Many observers felt that the team during that series was suffering from internal strife. It was all very perplexing at the time, because Pakistan had gone to Sri Lanka straight after lifting the T20 world championship in England and the natural expectation was that team unity and morale would be high. It is now clear, of course, what was going on. That team included players who would later get convicted for spot-fixing, and they were playing under a captain like Younis Khan, who has an impeccable record and reputation for honesty. It doesn’t take an Einstein to connect the dots.

Thankfully the Pakistan team now is in a far more positive and progressive frame of mind. Over the last two years, they have reinvented themselves as a highly competent and combative outfit under the captaincy of Misbahul Haq. They possess world-class talent in all areas, and are enjoying the momentum of Pakistan’s greatest-ever Test series victory, a 3-0 whitewash over top-ranked England, right behind them.

This contest promises to be a real firecracker of a series, because a great deal will be at stake. At the moment Pakistan are one Test win short of equalling their longest-ever uninterrupted streak of Test victories, which currently stands at six; that record could well be bettered in the coming weeks. An added motivation is the remote but realistic chance of climbing up the Test rankings and displacing India from the number four spot, which will happen if Pakistan sweeps the series 3-0.

Several Pakistani players are currently in the individual ICC world rankings — Younis Khan (fourth in Test batting), Saeed Ajmal (second in both Test and ODI bowling and third in T20 bowling), Abdur Rehman (tenth in Test bowling), Umar Akmal (tenth in ODI batting), Mohammad Hafeez (fourth in ODI bowling, third in ODI all-round performance, seventh in T20 bowling, and fourth in T20 all-round performance), and Shahid Afridi (fourth in ODI all-round performance, fifth in T20 bowling, and second in T20 all-round performance).

These players will be keen not just to retain but ideally even improve on their status. In addition, Azhar Ali and Misbahul Haq are 12th and 15th in Test batting, while Umar Gul is 15th in Test bowling; they will be itching to break into the top 10 in their respective categories.

This series is also going to be closely watched as Dav Whatmore’s first international assignment in his new role as the Pakistan national coach. He has a tough act to follow, as his predecessor Mohsin Khan pulled off an effective chemistry with the captain and the boys, presiding over a string of Pakistani victories. What goes in Whatmore’s favour is his sterling reputation as a committed professional, and his proven record of success in Asia. A contest in Sri Lanka will be an ideal start to his tenure; he knows the setting and the team well, having previously coached them to a world cup title.

The battle officially kicks off with the first of three T20 internationals on June 1, to be followed by five ODIs and three Tests.

Pakistan’s last international match was the Asia Cup final in Dhaka in March, and the last Test match was the third Test against England in February in Dubai. For the country’s untold cricket-mad millions, the first of June cannot arrive quickly enough.