Friday, February 25, 2011

Sri Lanka v Pakistan

Sri Lanka v Pakistan, Group A, World Cup 2011, Colombo

Familiar rivals line up in big contest

There must be a certain comfort for Pakistan in taking on Sri Lanka. This has nothing to do with who is the better side, but on the grounds of familiarity alone. In the last five years, when Pakistan haven't known anything about their future on and off the field, they've always known that soon, they'll be playing against Sri Lanka.
When looking to introduce a new captain, they look to Sri Lanka, as they did with Shoaib Malik and a three-ODI series in Abu Dhabi just after the last World Cup. In the interests of symmetry they even ended Malik's captaincy two years later just after he had lost another three-match series against them. The first international Pakistan played after the Oval Test forfeit and the positive dope tests of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif was against Sri Lanka. The most joyous occasions, such as the World Twenty20 win have involved Sri Lanka. The saddest, the Lahore attacks just before, have also regrettably involved them.
No country has played more against Pakistan in the last five years across all three formats than Sri Lanka (30 games). In a recent board-to-board interchange, both chairmen referred to the other in "brotherly" terms. It was a pointless exchange about Sri Lanka's scheduled series against Pakistan in October this year and the remote possibility of it being played in Pakistan. But if and when international cricket does return, it can be easily imagined that Sri Lanka will be the first visitors.
In many ways, the rivalry has been a balm, a soothing one, for Pakistan.
Lately, quietly slipping in under the radar of traditional duels, it has become an intense one. In the vernacular, you might even say it has acquired kaanta, or needle. In 17 ODIs since January 2006, the sides have won eight games each. None of the games have been particularly close but as a whole, contests have been competitive and carried meaningful sub-plots.
"I think Pakistan is a great side, they've got great balance, they've got match winning cricketers, not just one but quite a lot of them, so any opposition is wary of them," Kumar Sangakkara, Sri Lanka's captain, said. "We are not going to take anything lightly or for granted, we are just going to go out there and do the best what we can."
Sangakkara, who contributed to the needle with a much-remembered slanging match with Younis Khan in 2009, speaks from a position of equality, if not outright control. The equality is a modern attribute, since Sri Lanka's rise from 1996. Pakistan may well have won six out of six World Cup encounters before Saturday, but - and this is remarkable - they haven't come across each other since 1992.
The stat means nothing. Altogether more relevant is the run-in: Sri Lanka have won six of the last eight.
Familiarity, in fact, may be the winning and losing of it. Pakistan, over the years, have learnt not to give wickets to Muttiah Muralitharan; he's taken 95 in 64 ODIs, but they rarely crumble to him. Even then, Waqar Younis' bullish assessment, that Muralitharan "isn't 28 anymore" and that the going may not be easy for him, tempts fate. Similarly, Lasith Malinga, not a certainty, has not been as difficult to fathom as others have found.
And arguably, they were the first country to decode Ajantha Mendis.
"We've played a lot of cricket against them and understand each other's games well," Misbah-ul-Haq said. "Both Muralitharan and Malinga are world class. But we've played them quite a lot, and players understand their strengths. Simple plan: play them on merit."
Instead, it is men such as Nuwan Kulusekera or even Rangana Herath if he plays, the more orthodox if you will, of Sri Lanka's stars who have troubled Pakistan consistently. If Pakistan can shed their caution and attach another specialist bowler, their attack will be deceptively incisive. Regardless, we are assured of the presence of a vast, varied cast of match-winners on the field tomorrow, any of them capable of changing a game in a blink.
For the World Cup, the R Premadasa has taken on a new visage. A day before the game, and empty, it still looked faintly intimidating, even threatening. The stands are new and high. The game is sold-out. The city is feeling it now, building up to it. The weekend is here. Both teams are wound up, ready to be let at each other. It will be some atmosphere, a true theatre for what will be - hopefully, given the lack of them so far - a true contest.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo

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