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Asia Cup: Living on a prayer

Pakistan may be defending champs, but against familiar foes Sri Lanka, there is little to choose between the sides.

Team Pakistan observe their afternoon prayers before a practice session in Dhaka, on the eve of their Asia Cup opener against Sri Lanka.AP Team Pakistan observe their afternoon prayers before a practice session in Dhaka, on the eve of their Asia Cup opener against Sri Lanka (AP)

The opening match of the 12th Asia Cup features two teams which are the new ‘familiar foes’ of international cricket. 

Across formats, over the past three months, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have played against each other in 10 matches (5 ODIs, 2 T20Is and 3 Tests) and their recent record suggests no clear favourite. The T20 games were tied at 1-1, the Test series ended with a similar scoreline.

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Only in the ODIs did Pakistan gain an insurmountable 3-1 lead in Dubai, before Sri Lanka took a consolation win. Yet what this scoreline does not tell you is that these two teams have been rather evenly matched.

A common factor in these contests has been the venue — all the matches have been played in the Gulf — which now changes to the Fatullah Cricket Stadium, about 37 kilometres from Dhaka. A different setting, though conditions are expected to be similar, will help break the monotony of the contests.

An unusual number of matches between two particular teams can lead to fatigue among the fans and spectators. The India and Sri Lanka cricket boards indulged in some overkill when the two teams played each other a dozen times each in 2008 and 2009 and this figure is only the number of ODIs. Lanka and Pakistan are in danger of going down that road.

Plenty at stake

Renewed interest could develop among fans from either side because there is more at stake here than bragging rights of a bilateral series win. Pakistan are defending champions of the Asia Cup while Sri Lanka have won the tournament on four occasions, second only to India with five titles.

On paper both sides have reason to believe they are better than their opponents but a Sri Lanka win, considering Pakistan’s status in the tournament, will be termed as an upset.

Pakistan have reason to believe they can beat Sri Lanka. They have found a settled opening pair in Sharjeel Khan and Ahmed Shehzad, after struggling to find one since the departure of Nasir Jamshed.

All-rounder Mohammad Hafeez has been outstanding since his return to the limited-overs format. His 449 runs at 149.33 in the series at UAE proves that he likes to bat against the Sri Lankans. They have an in-form skipper in Misbah-ul-Haq. Misbah-ul-Haq has scored seven half-centuries in his last nine innings. His form and seniority means he can command respect — vital in a team famous for their cliques.

The Pakistan bowling attack has been their strength over the years and continues to be so. Twenty-two-year-old medium pacer Bilawal Bhatti has shown promise while Junaid Khan has fulfilled his to a large extent. Junaid had 13 wickets in five matches in the series against Sri Lanka and will be keen to add more to his tally.

And then there’s Shahid Afridi, a match-winner on his day but increasingly more with the ball than the bat these days. Afridi braved a jaw injury to take part in a training session on the eve of the Asia Cup opener. Saeed Ajmal has not been at his very best in recent times but under-estimating him would be a folly.

Sri Lanka, after their flurry of meetings with Pakistan, travelled to Bangladesh, where the bulk of the action over the next 45 days will take place (The Asia Cup is followed by the World T20 ).

Angelo Mathews side won the Test series 1-0 and registered a 3-0 clean sweep in the ODIs against Bangladesh.

While playing Bangladesh — finalist from the previous edition — at home can be a daunting challenge, Pakistan will be a tougher opponent in conditions that are expected to suit both sides. Skipper Angelo Mathews has not got carried away with his team’s good showing against Bangladesh. “We played some good cricket in the past months but that’s not going to win us the Asia Cup. It’s a new tournament in Bangladesh and the battles are different,” he said.

Pace versus big hits

Sri Lanka have the batting to counter Pakistan’s bowling threat, especially on the slow and low pitches here. Kumar Sangakkara is in fantastic form with an ODI hundred against Bangladesh just five days ago. It came on the heels of his monumental 319 in the Test match at Chittagong. Mahela Jayawardene will add to the quality and experience of the batting line-up.

The Sri Lankans , however, will miss the experience of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Nuwan Kulasekara and Rangana Herath — both out injured — and the onus will once again be on Lasith Malinga to deliver. Also the Sri Lankans will know that they are the most successful team in the Asia Cup having won more matches than any other side (29 out of 43).

On Tuesday, when the two sides meet, the aforementioned statistic is unlikely to have a bearing on the result nor will the recent records between these sides who have played each other a little too often. Rather the familiarity between the two sides will ensure a keen contest.

Live on Star Sports 3, 1:30pm

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