Preview: Pakistan look to move on from Younis-Misbah era in first Test
ABU DHABI – Both Pakistan and Sri Lanka are in the process of rebuilding their Test sides. As Pakistan aims to move on after Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq quit the game, Sri Lanka, which has been in an extended period of transition, has to recover from a cruel one-sided thrashing at home against India.
The repair work starts for the two teams when they enter the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi for the first of two Tests starting on Thursday.
Pakistan’s weaker link has been its batting, and without the run-scoring prowess of Younis – 10,099 runs in 118 Tests – and the calming influence of Misbah, it will be hard pressed.
With a new opening pair in Sami Aslam (11 Tests) and Shan Masood (10 Tests), the heavy load of putting up decent totals will fall on Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed, the new captain.
Sarfraz has established himself to an extent as a limited-overs captain, bagging the Champions Trophy 2017 title with an impressive bunch of youngsters, but the five-day format will be more demanding – a fact he accepted in the lead-up to the first Test.
Sarfraz promised that his players would implement what they learnt from the two greats.
“Obviously, their contributions were immense, but we have to move on,” said Sarfraz. “We will do our best to implement what we have learnt from them in the past several years.
“It’s not a distraction but we realize the responsibility and all the players are very excited to enter this new phase in our Test cricket,” said Sarfraz, confirming that Azhar would drop down to No 3 after performing the role of a makeshift opener since the tour of England last year.
Asad Shafiq will come in at No 4 followed by Babar Azam and Haris Sohail, whose selection came under severe criticism as he has not played any first-class game for three years.
But Pakistan has the wherewithal to counter Sri Lanka’s pace and spin at venues where it has not lost a single series in nine attempts. At the Sheikh Zayed Stadium, it is even more invincible, having never lost at this venue in nine Tests. It has won five and drawn the rest.
“A lot changes in teams with the passage of time, our team has also changed but victory in the Champions trophy has given us confidence and that energy level will help here as well,” said Sarfraz.
Pakistan was sweating on the fitness of Azhar, who topped Younis and Misbah with 1198 runs in 11 Tests last year – with a triple century in the day-night Test in Dubai against Windies and a double-century in Melbourne against a formidable Australian attack. Azhar has a knee injury and might need pain-killing injections to last the Sri Lanka series.
Pakistan is likely to enter with three seamers in Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Abbas and ever-lively Hasan Ali with Yasir Shah as its main spinner on a pitch which is likely to lose some of its grass on match day. Haris will offer a part-time spin option as a left-armer.
Sri Lanka must also hope for a better show from its batsmen to improve on its dismal show against India. Dimuth Karunaratne (285 in three Tests) was its best performer against India. And Karunaratne would be relieved to see Kaushal Silva back alongside him at the top of the order after missing the India matches.
Dinesh Chandimal. Kusal Mendis and Lahiru Thirimanne will form the middle order, but Sri Lanka is going to be without Angelo Mathews, who is nursing a calf injury.
Chandimal, too, felt the absence of Younis and Misbah would hurt Pakistan but did not feel it made Sri Lanka favourites. “Younis and Misbah were batsmen I looked up to as a youngster,” said Chandimal. “There was this match in Pallekele (July 2015) where we declared early thinking that we had enough, but we were proved wrong by the duo, especially Younis. It was a massive target but Pakistan got there with Younis scoring a big hundred (171 not out), so they had their value.
“Younis and Misbah were great players, so they not being in the team can help us,” said Chandimal. “But we need to step up our own performances.
“As a team our performances in the last few series were below par but as a team we have learnt especially in fielding so we need to win one game and then I hope things will fall in right place.”
Yasir Shah v Rangana Herath
On the dusty and slow pitches of the United Arab Emirates, spin will rule the roost, with Pakistan relying heavily on Yasir Shah and Sri Lanka on Rangana Herath.
Pakistan selected Yasir after the leg-spinner managed to pass a fitness test and he will be the main bowling weapon for it as he was in the last series in Sri Lanka, taking 24 wickets in the 2-1 win two years ago.
Herath, too, has had success against Pakistan, with 90 wickets in 19 Tests. He mesmerised Pakistan with 23 wickets – a world record for a two-Test series in Sri Lanka’s 2-0 home win in 2014. But like India, Pakistan also blunted the veteran left-arm spinner on the 2015 tour, conceding just two wickets to him in two Tests.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, will welcome back Nuwan Pradeep and Suranga Lakmal but Mathews’ absence with a calf injury has left it to rework its bowling options.
Rangana Herath, the highest wicket-taker for the Islanders in the longer format with 389 scalps, will hold the key.
“He has done really well in the last seven eight years but we also have (Lakshan) Sandakan as a talented spinner, so we have options with us,” said Chandimal.
The second Test — a day-night affair — will be played in Dubai from October 6.
Pakistan: Sarfraz Ahmed (capt, wk), Azhar Ali, Shan Masood, Sami Aslam, Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq, Haris Sohail, Usman Salahuddin, Yasir Shah, Mohammad Asghar, Bilal Asif, Mir Hamza, Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali, Mohammad Abbas, Wahab Riaz
Sri Lanka: Dinesh Chandimal (capt), Lahiru Thirimanne, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kaushal Silva, Kusal Mendis, Sadeera Samarawickrama, Roshen Silva, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Rangana Herath, Lakshan Sandakan, Dilruwan Perera, Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep, Vishwa Fernando, Lahiru Gamage.