Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sri Lanka and Pakistan's arranged marriage

The two teams are increasingly seeing more of each other in recent times. Both are also in similar stages of transition
The two teams have more in common than you think, and that includes off the pitch © AFP
Some time over the past decade, in a way both subtle and inevitable, Pakistani and Sri Lankan cricket embraced the familiarity, intimacy and resignation of an arranged marriage. For most of the outside world, their relationship is probably defined by the 2009 terrorist attack. Yet perhaps the greater truth has been what has happened since.
Since 2011, what used to be a biennial cycle of Test tours has become an annual one for the two sides. Moreover, in the past ten years, Sri Lanka have been Pakistan's most common opponent in Tests and ODIs, and the T20s they'll play soon will give Sri Lanka the clean sweep as Pakistan's most regular opponents.
The two countries have quite a few things in common, particularly a disdain - both politically and in cricketing terms - for India. Indeed, one of the reasons that Sri Lanka's cricket fraternity and society at large have been so forthcoming towards Pakistan is because (according to several of them) they know the experience of cricket isolation caused by a state of war. The cricketing culture in both countries is marked by a high tolerance for the unusual, and each of bowling's latest innovations/sins frequently involves their players.
Most significantly, they are teams going through generational transitions and perhaps not sure how to deal with them yet. Though only Mahela Jayawardene is actually missing, all three of Misbah-ul-Haq, Kumar Sangakarra and Shahid Afridi will have reduced roles en route to their seminal retirements. A chance, then, for new heroes to emerge; but that doesn't seem to be the prevailing feeling just yet.
The two countries have quite a few things in common, particularly a disdain - both politically and in cricketing terms - for India
Pakistan's selectors have lurched deeper into safety after the Bangladesh tour, dropping Sami Aslam, Babar Azam and Bilawal Bhatti and bringing back Ahmed Shehzad, Shan Masood and Ehsan Adil. Saeed Ajmal has already been given up on, missing out on another Test series, while the two players to top-score on the recent Pakistan A tour - Umar Amin and Fawad Alam - have also been ignored. Given that they have already run out of most older players to work with, the Pakistan selectors have now sought to go back to the relatively tried-and-tested youngsters.
Comebacks are also the flavour for the Sri Lankan squad, with Jehan Mubarak, Tharindu Kaushal and Kusal Perera all returning to the team. The side's overall composition is more youthful than that of their opponents, but like Pakistan, they lack any genuinely exciting prospects.
Indeed, that might be the dull horror that hums in the back of the minds of fans in both countries: these transitions are coming at a significant time. There is a fear that if they don't get it right, they'll be left behind by the larger cricket world. Neither side seems to be churning out the odd wonders that they seemed to do so regularly, and the over-abundance of the IPL in the case of Sri Lanka's players, and the lack of it for Pakistan's, is being blamed for why each national team is falling behind.
The (relative) lack of wealth of their boards, and lack of market value, means that they struggle to land marquee tours or series. And the continued ineptitude of their administrators just adds to the sense of impending despair - there is the pervasive feeling that the powers that be, as they march towards their fields of gold, are going to forget these two cricket sides.
Not many around the world will be as riveted by the storylines here as they will be by funky captains and ancient urns elsewhere, but there won't be a lack of them. For Pakistan, this is #TeamMisbah's last chance to win a Test in Sri Lanka, and their first away series against a top-eight side since New Zealand in 2011. Equally importantly, Younis Khan will see his tragically underplayed reign as philosopher-king reach the richly deserved milestone of 100 Tests. Shehzad returns to the side after allegedly being pushed out by the coach for issues of discipline, while Zulfiqar Babar comes back both in form and with yet another point to prove about his age.
Rangana Herath will be looking to further cement his cult status with another series against the team he loves to torment most. Kusal will be similarly eager to get on with the tour, having slammed six scores above 80, including four hundreds, in seven innings against Pakistan A.
The Test series promises to be far better balanced than the ODIs or T20s however. Although both teams exited at the same stage in the recent World Cup, there is little doubt that Sri Lanka are far more settled in the shorter formats. In fact, so dismal is Pakistan's situation that their biggest motivation in the ODI series is to ensure qualification for the Champions Trophy, which adds some extra drama to the encounters. But given how an already struggling side is undergoing major transitions, it is difficult, and exciting, to imagine them doing well against the hosts.
Even the Pakistani T20 side is beginning to feel a bit long in the tooth. Still the most successful side, the Pakistan team has started to show the impact of their lack of involvement in the top T20 leagues, and have only eight wins in their last 17 games.
The tour then promises to be at once forgotten and yet full of subtle delights; oddly familiar and yet capable of plenty of surprises. It is a series that might inspire boredom among those attuned to brighter lights and bigger hype, but it is also one that will capture the game's more opaque charms. An arranged marriage perhaps, but not a loveless one.
Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show.