ESPNcricinfo – 15 July, 2023
While Sri Lanka have played six of their last eight Tests in Galle, Pakistan’s form in the longest format will be their biggest concern
On July 16, Sri Lanka played Pakistan in Galle in the first of two Test matches, with the second Test starting on the 24th. That statement is true for both 2022 and 2023.
It’s not clear why this series has been set up to perfectly mirror Pakistan’s tour of Sri Lanka last year, but it provides the opportunity to evaluate each side’s progress in the interceding 12 months. Sri Lanka begin as obvious favourites despite mixed results in the past 12 months primarily because of their level of familiarity with conditions; six of the hosts’ last eight Test matches have come at this venue, and four of those games have resulted in wins for them. A relatively settled Test side who recognise their best red-ball squad, Sri Lanka went on to challenge New Zealand away in the only other Test series they played, going down by two wickets in the first before being overpowered in the second.
They come off pitch-perfect recent form – albeit in another format. The ignominy of being forced to qualify for the World Cup in India was more than made up for by Sri Lanka vanquishing all before them in Zimbabwe, winning all eight games and the trophy to book their place at the tournament in style. They are bolstered by the likely return of Dimuth Karunaratne, who missed the final of that competition with a hamstring injury. With two centuries and four fifties in his last seven Test innings, the availability of arguably the world’s best opener of the past five years adds some welcome heft against an opening attack comprising Shaheen Shah Afridi and Naseem Shah.
Add to that the quality Sri Lanka have in their spinning ranks – a recent area of particular famine for Pakistan – and their impregnability is further cemented. Prabath Jayasuriya and Ramesh Mendis were Pakistan’s chief tormentors on a dramatic final day of the series last year, and should play key roles. Pakistan, meanwhile, have struggled to appropriately replace Yasir Shah, with Sajid Khan and Nauman Ali – the two they turned to most frequently – struggling to have a similar impact. This series will see Abrar Ahmed get another run after impressing against England, but Mohammad Nawaz and Salman Ali Agha are expected to have significant bowling duties should Galle’s surfaces live up to their gripping reputation.
But Pakistan’s underdog status comes just as much from their own track record as anything Sri Lanka can throw at them. They haven’t won a single Test in the year since their win at Galle in the corresponding fixture 12 months ago, and that was their only win of 2022. Since the start of last year, Babar Azam’s side have triumphed just once in ten matches, losing five of the other nine. A shaky top order will be put to the test once more in Sri Lanka, and Sarfaraz Ahmed, who retains his place as wicketkeeper, will need to back up excellent recent batting performances with ability with the gloves on testing surfaces.
Sri Lanka WWLLW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight: Prabath Jayasuriya and Shaheen Afridi
In five Test matches in Galle, Prabath Jayasuriya has taken 46 wickets, registering six five-fors and two match ten-wicket hauls. That included 17 wickets in two Test matches against Pakistan last year, famously skittling Pakistan out post-lunch on the final day of the series to level it up 1-1. Another world-class spinner of the Sri Lankan production line, the slow left armer was named the Player of the Series, and will be one of the key antagonists for the visitors this time around, too. Whether they’ve learned to cope with him any better might go a long way in determining the destination of the series trophy.
You needn’t look past Shaheen Afridi for Pakistan, given all the baggage Galle at this time of year carries for him. Playing his first Test since a nasty injury in the corresponding Test last year, all eyes will be on his pace, rhythm and ability to withstand five days of a format he has had an extended break from. The surface is more likely to suit spin, and whether Afridi retains his bowling speed – something he has expressed recent scepticism about – could be a bellwether for his red-ball future. With Pakistan likely fielding just two fast bowlers, Babar’s workload management of Shaheen will also be under scrutiny, with in-game management an area the Pakistan captain has struggled with in the past.
If Karunaratne is available, he will lead the side as captain and opener, with Nishan Madushka likely to pip Pathum Nissanka to be his opening partner. Left-arm fast bowler Dilshan Madushanka is in line for a Test debut, while Sri Lanka are spoiled for spin choices.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Dimuth Karunaratne (capt), 2 Nishan Madhushka, 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Angelo Mathews, 5 Dinesh Chandimal, 6 Dhananjaya de Silva, 7 Sadeera Samarawickrama (wk), 8 Ramesh Mendis, 9 Prabath Jayasuriya, 10 Dilshan Madushanka, 11 Vishwa Fernando/Praveen Jayawickrama
Pakistan are likely to go with the extra spin allrounder and sacrifice a seamer in the process, which brings Nawaz into the frame.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Abdullah Shafique, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Shan Masood, 4 Babar Azam (capt), 5 Sarfaraz Ahmed (wk), 6 Saud Shakeel, 7 Agha Salman, 8 Mohammad Nawaz, 9 Naseem Shah, 10 Abrar Ahmed, 11 Shaheen Shah Afridi
Pitch and conditions
There are showers forecast for every day of the Test, though persistent wet weather is unlikely, and Sri Lanka’s world-beating groundstaff should ensure delays are kept to a minimum. The wickets are likely to be slow and conducive to spin.