Sri Lanka look to ruin Azhar Ali and Co's historic homecoming

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safari
10 Dec 2019 | 10:58 AM
authorHardik Worah

Sri Lanka look to ruin Azhar Ali and Co's historic homecoming

After being abashed in Australia, Pakistan will try their best to return back to winning ways in front of their supporters

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After 10 long years, Test cricket is set to return to Pakistan!

After 10 long years, Sri Lanka are back in Pakistan in white clothing!

After 10 long years, Domestic Stalwart Fawad Alam might play his first Test!

The wait is finally over! December 11 will be marked as a historic day in Pakistan's sporting calendar as the Azhar Ali-led side will take on Sri Lanka in the first Test of the two-match series in Rawalpindi. Pakistan haven't hosted a single Test ever since that 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore, and this series will carry great importance which will go beyond the results.

However, after being abashed by David Warner and Co. in Australia, Pakistan will try their best to return back to winning ways in front of their supporters who have been denied the opportunity to watch their national heroes in white clothing. Pakistan, who are yet to open their account in the ICC World Test Championship, are still finding their feet under the new management and looked clueless Down Under where they lost both Tests by margin of an innings. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka have 60 points to their name after winning one and losing as many against New Zealand.  

Sri Lanka will play two Tests under heavy security, one in Rawalpindi -- where Pakistan's army is headquartered -- and the second in Karachi. Eight people were killed and several players and officials were wounded when militants opened fire on a convoy of buses travelling to a Test in Lahore in March 2009. Since then, Pakistan were forced to play their home matches on neutral ground in the United Arab Emirates. International cricket began making inroads back into the country when Zimbabwe became the first team to play in Pakistan in 2015, paving the wave for a smattering of Twenty20 matches ever since. But Test matches -- considered the pinnacle of international cricket -- have until now remained absent.

Players from the home team will be itching to walk out at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium on Wednesday as not a single one of them has played a Test match in Pakistan. Their batsmen will have to put up a much better performance against Sri Lanka than they did in Australia. The likes of Babar Azam, Shan Masood, Asad Shafiq and Mohammad Rizwan got starts but none one of them could get those big hundreds, and a lot will depend on the former who has been Pakistan's highest run-getter in this format since the start of 2018.

Having already proven his worth in white-ball cricket, Babar slowly and steadily has also become Pakistan's most dependable batsman in the longest format of the game. The right-hander has scored 970 runs at 51.05 since the start of 2018 and will be eager to show his class in front of the home crowd. Meanwhile, Azhar and Shafiq - Pakistan's most experienced batsmen - will have to share most of the burden. Both batsmen average close to 50 in the subcontinent and are due for a big score.

Just like this series will mark the return of Test cricket to Pakistan after 10 years, Fawad too will be making his return to red-ball cricket after as many years. The left-hander last played a Test match in 2009 but despite scoring tons of runs in domestic cricket, Fawad was constantly ignored. The 34-year-old is an absolute stalwart in the domestic circuit as no other player has scored more runs than Fawad's 3,105 in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Pakistan's premier first-class competition. He has been unstoppable in the last few years as he averages 80 in first-class cricket since the start of 2018. His average of 56.84 is the fourth-best amongst Asians (minimum 11,000 runs) - behind Vijay Merchant (71.64), Vijay Hazare (58.38) and Sachin Tendulkar (57.84). He has also played eight first-class encounters at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium and averages 69.9 there. Fawad can provide Pakistan the much-required solidity in the middle-order.

Despite all the trouble in the batting department, it was their bowling that let Pakistan down in Australia. Legspinner Yasir Shah outperformed every Pakistani batsman apart from Babar, but didn't do his job as a bowler. The surface here in Rawalpindi offers a lot of assistance to fast bowlers who have dictated term at this venue in the last two years. Pacers have taken 173 wickets at an average of 23 and strike rate of 43.8. Meanwhile, spinners haven't been used much as they have only bowled 318.3 overs compared to 1261.5 from seamers in this time frame.  

Shaheen Afridi was Pakistan's best bowler in Australia and he will enjoy bowling at this surface which offers a lot of movement. Meanwhile, 2019 hasn't been Mohammad Abbas' year. In 2019, the right-arm paceman has only managed five wickets in three Tests at an average of 66.20, compared to his overall average of 20.37. Abbas struggled in South Africa and Australia, but Sri Lanka will have to be careful against the 29-year-old who is usually at his best in Asian conditions. Abbas operates at an average of 17.6 in the subcontinent, and could get enough movement in Rawalpindi to cause serious damage.

Sri Lanka, despite being the target of the 2009 attack, have been a driving force behind the return of international cricket after they played six limited-overs matches in Karachi and Lahore in September and October. They lost the ODI series but managed to clean sweep Pakistan in the three-match T20I series.

The Islanders will be led by Dimuth Karunaratne who has been their most consistent batsman this year. The left-handed opener has scored 427 runs in six Tests and averages over 40 in the subcontinent. He has hit seven out of his nine centuries in these conditions. He enjoys batting against Pakistan as he has amassed 822 runs in eight Tests at 54.8 against this opponent. Opening in Rawalpindi won't be easy for Karunaratne but the 31-year-old will have to ensure that the Pakistani pace attack doesn't get early access to Sri Lanka's middle order.  

Sri Lanka's batting line-up looks more settled than Pakistan's as the likes of Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Kusal Perera, Dhananjaya de Silva, Niroshan Dickwella and Oshada Fernando have been in pretty decent form. Most of them played a key role in Sri Lanka's historic win in South Africa where they whitewashed the Proteas in the two-match series. Kusal Perera played one of the greatest Test knocks ever, and he along with Dickwella and Fernando can put a lot of pressure on Pakistani bowling attack. Sri Lanka also have Dinesh Chandimal in their arsenal, but the experienced campaigner hasn't done much in red-ball cricket in the last 12 months.

In the bowling department, Sri Lanka will miss their premier paceman Suranga Lakmal who was ruled out of the Test series because of dengue. In his absence, Lahiru Kumara, Vishwa Fernando, Kasun Rajitha and Asitha Fernando will have to bring their A-game. They depend a lot on their spinners but the likes of Fernando and Rajitha can cause enough damage, especially on the surface that will be on offer in Rawalpindi. '

The series -- the second for both teams in the ongoing World Test championship -- promises to be intriguing, not least because of the tussle between the two coaches: Pakistan's Misbah-ul-Haq and Sri Lanka's Mickey Arthur. Arthur was Pakistan's coach until August when he was axed by the country's cricket officials, which included Misbah, following a disappointing performance at this year's World Cup. The South African, who was only appointed by Sri Lanka last week, will hope to pile the pressure on Pakistan who are coming off a humiliating thrashing in Australia which pushed them down to eighth in the rankings.

Teams:

Pakistan: Shan Masood, Imam-ul-Haq, Azhar Ali(c), Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq, Haris Sohail, Mohammad Rizwan(w), Yasir Shah, Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Abbas, Fawad Alam, Imran Khan, Usman Shinwari, Kashif Bhatti, Abid Ali, Naseem Shah.

Sri Lanka: Dimuth Karunaratne(c), Lahiru Thirimanne, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Kusal Perera, Dhananjaya de Silva, Niroshan Dickwella(w), Dilruwan Perera, Lasith Embuldeniya, Lahiru Kumara, Vishwa Fernando, Dinesh Chandimal, Kasun Rajitha, Asitha Fernando, Oshada Fernando, Lakshan Sandakan.

* With inputs from AFP

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