Through the middle of the last decade, Sri Lanka and Pakistan seemed to play Test series annually. Often, these were closely contested, and frequently produced compelling cricket. Pakistan’s two incredible fourth-innings chases stand out – the manic one in Sharjah in early 2014, the masterful Younis Khan-led triumph in Pallekele the following year. There were the Rangana Herath routs as well, such as in Abu Dhabi in 2017, and Galle in 2014.
Kumar Sangakkara’s mastery over Saeed Ajmal, Yasir Shah dominating a series in Sri Lanka in 2015, Sri Lanka quicks occasionally outdoing Pakistan’s in the UAE. This is a low-intensity rivalry, perhaps, but the narratives have been consistently gripping.
These teams had played a series in Pakistan in 2019, which the home side had won 1-0. But in Sri Lanka, at least, this seems a fresh start. The batting greats from either side are gone. Pakistan have fearsome young quicks, and Sri Lanka’s batting is beginning to make strides, despite their woeful outing in the first Test against Australia.
As this is a Galle Test, however, spin is the thing, and here is where the greatest unknowns are. Yasir is likely to be back in the XI, but can he recapture the magic of 2015? His last Test came in 2019, and he wasn’t particularly impressive in the warm-up match in Colombo, where he took 86 for 1. Nauman Ali, the other spinner who is likely to play, went wicketless for 60 in the warm-up, and took his wickets at 42.22 in the recent series against Australia, though that had been on flat surfaces.
Sri Lanka are going in with a confident but inexperienced attack. Prabath Jayasuriya is almost certain to play, having claimed a match-winning 12 wickets on debut last week. Ramesh Mendis has been somewhat consistent, but he’s played only eight Tests himself. Maheesh Theekshana, the other likely spinner, has played only four first-class matches all up.
How the slow bowlers from either side impose themselves on the match may go a long way to deciding the outcome.
(completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka WLWDL Pakistan LDDWW
In the spotlight
While other batters gorged themselves on flat surfaces, Fawad Alam did not have a fun time against Australia, averaging 8.25 across the four innings he played. Having hit three overseas tons last year [against New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and West Indies], this would not ordinarily be a problem, but Fawad’s righteous battles with Pakistan’s selectors are the stuff of legend, partly owing to that wildly unorthodox set-up, which doesn’t look like it should work. His highest Test score of 168, which came on debut way back in 2009, came in Sri Lanka. Given the shaky ground on which he has often – unfairly – stood, he’ll feel much more comfortable with a couple of big scores this series.
There is a theory that Niroshan Dickwella is Sri Lanka’s best wicketkeeper, but in recent series, there has not been a lot of evidence in this direction. He missed four stumpings in the series against Australia, two of which were fairly straightforward [in his defence, opposition wicketkeeper Alex Carey did not have a great series with the gloves either]. Add to this his often promising but insubstantial contributions with the bat, Dickwella’s place is under a little scrutiny.
Sri Lanka are likely to stick to the same spin attack that routed Australia in the second Test between those teams. But they will bring back Dhananjaya de Silva into the middle order, despite Kamindu Mendis’ excellent outing on debut. Seamer Asitha Fernando may come back in for Kasun Rajitha too, after missing the last match with Covid-19. Pathum Nissanka remains out with Covid-19, and Oshada Fernando will open instead.
Allrounder Agha Salman is set to make his Test debut for Pakistan, following an impressive run in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy first-class tournament in the last three years. Legspinner Yasir Shah, the hero of Pakistan’s 2015 series win in Sri Lanka, will also return to the XI, as will 28-year-old Mohammad Nawaz, who last played a Test in November 2016.
Pakistan: 1 Abdullah Shafique, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Babar Azam (capt), 5 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 6 Agha Salman 7 Mohammad Nawaz, 8 Yasir Shah, 9 Hasan Ali, 10 Shaheen Shah Afridi, 11 Naseem Shah
Pitch and conditions
The surface is likely to be decent for batting in the first two days, before it starts to take spin from day three. There is always the likelihood of rain in Galle at this time of the year, while the stiff wind that blows across the ground will also be something bowlers will have to contend with.
Stats and trivia
Pakistan have won 20 Tests to 16 they have lost against Sri Lanka. Even within Sri Lanka, they have a better-than-even record – they have won eight and lost only seven.
Dickwella’s best batting average is against Pakistan. He averages 40.55 against this opposition, with 365 runs across ten innings.
Yasir averages 19.33 in Sri Lanka, which is better than he averages anywhere else. He has only bowled in six innings and taken 24 wickets there, though, all in that 2015 series.
Sri Lanka sit at third on the World Test Championship points table, and Pakistan fourth. A 2-0 win for either could put them in with an outside chance of making the WTC final.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf