Sharjah: Two days after the Southwark Crown Court's landmark verdict in the spot-fixing investigation, Pakistan's players will have to forget about their former team-mates and focus on five days of hard Test cricket. They play at a venue favoured by their predecessors but much has changed since those heady days of the 1980s. In 2001 the Indian government banned the national side from playing there but Pakistan's exile as a cricketing venue has given the Emirates a fresh lease of life in recent years, and Sharjah is set to host its first Test in nine years, and fifth overall.
The Pakistan side that takes guard on Thursday will also be unrecognisable from the flashy crowd-pullers that used to grace this venue back in the day. More tellingly, they have little in common with the outfit that sizzled with the ball and floundered with the bat in England last summer. The last time Pakistan lined up for Test cricket in Sharjah, they were handed two ruthless hammerings by Australia, including the ignominy of being bowled out for 59 and 53 in the same match. Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan and Taufeeq Umar were a part of that series in 2002, and each of them would disappear into Pakistan's fringes before re-emerging, stronger than ever. The trio lends the Pakistan line-up a look of steel that was last seen when Inzamam-ul-Haq was still playing. The bowling line-up has lost the Mohammads Asif and Amir but Junaid Khan has already replicated their ability to hoop the ball each way - that too under an unrelenting sun and on unresponsive tracks.
While Pakistan have blended their innate flair with discipline to take a 1-0 lead, their opponents continue to regress inexplicably. Muttiah Muralitharan's absence has left the bowling hamstrung, but that is only one half of the story. The lack of bowling nous has put Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene under such intense pressure that it has affected their productivity with the bat. The captain, Tillakaratne Dilshan, is going through a horror run of form as well - he has scored 177 runs in his last nine outings, 83 of those coming in one innings against Australia. A turnaround in his personal fortunes will help his team get back on track.
There's plenty riding on this match for Pakistan. A 2-0 series scoreline will take them ahead of Sri Lanka to fifth in the ICC Test table, and within touching distance of Australia. That's not too bad for a side that plays all its games away from home, in the absence of a bunch of potential first-choice players who are either ignored, banned, or facing jail terms.
Form guide (completed games, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: LDDDL
In the spotlight
Sri Lanka's batsmen are accomplished players of spin, and most of them have had the fortune of honing their skills against Muttiah Muralitharan in the nets. Saeed Ajmal posed a different style and trajectory to Murali, and worked his way to 11 wickets in the first two Tests. Sri Lanka would have done their homework in the interim, and will have plans for him in Sharjah. Can Ajmal still manage to slip his doosras through their defences?
Mahela Jayawardene seldom lets a full series go without a hundred. So far in the series, Ajmal has out-thought him twice, while the seamers have got him nicking into the cordon twice. Jayawardene is too good to repeat such errors, and Pakistan should be on high alert when he walks out to bat in the decider.
Playing two spinners in a four-man attack worked well for Pakistan in Dubai, and the indications are that they will stick to the same combination.
Pakistan (likely): 1 Mohammad Hafeez, 2 Taufeeq Umar, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Younis Khan, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Asad Shafiq, 7 Adnan Akmal (wk), 8 Umar Gul, 9 Abdur Rehman, 10 Saeed Ajmal, 11 Junaid Khan
Sri Lanka are mulling the possibility of benching Lahiru Thirimanne and promoting Dilshan back to the opener's slot. Seamer Kosala Kulasekara's name is also doing the rounds, as Sri Lanka seek to make their attack more incisive.
Sri Lanka (likely): 1 Tharanga Paranavitana, 2 Tillakaratne Dilshan (capt), 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Mahela Jayawardene, 5 Angelo Mathews, 6 Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), 7 and 8 Two of Dhammika Prasad / Suraj Randiv / Kosala Kulasekara, 9 Rangana Herath, 10 Chanaka Welegedera, 11 Suranga Lakmal
Pitch and conditions
Maximum temperatures of about 31 degrees will provide the teams with welcome respite, though the humidity will continue to sap them. The Intercontinental Cup fixture hosted here between Afghanistan and UAE unfolded in classic Test-match style, with batting getting progressively difficult, as the visitors held on grimly for a draw on the final day. The one-dayers that followed were also low-scoring affairs, with spinners dominating the proceedings.
Dilshan noted the presence of a grassy cover on the strip, but it remains to be seen if the grass makes it to the match morning. Misbah expected it to be a "normal Sharjah pitch" that will assist the batsmen.
Stats & Trivia
- Mahela Jayawardene is 105 runs away from becoming the ninth batsman and the first ever Sri Lankan to score 10,000
- Kumar Sangakkara is eleventh in the all-time list, and 28 runs away from reaching the 9000-run mark
- Misbah-ul-Haq has led Pakistan in five Test series including the current one, none of which they have lost
"We know which areas we have to improve on, and if we play our brand of cricket then it gives us a good chance to level the series. I am not feeling any pressure but I am worried about my batting. I have worked hard and have confidence that I can come out and score big."
Tillakaratne Dilshan is confident that a turnaround is round the corner for him and for his team
"Sri Lanka are a very good side and they are fighters so we are ready for it but our focus is to do the basics well and play like we have done in the last year and a half."
Misbah-ul-Haq backs his side to maintain their intensity and close the door on Sri Lanka