|Younus Khan celebrating his 18th Test Century|
Finally, on a pleasant and fading evening of 7th November 2011, Pakistan won a test series against a proper test playing nation after nearly 6 years – last against India in the winters of 2006. It certainly was a long-time coming, especially after the controversies and turmoil Pakistan has gone through, on and off the field, equally.
The series wasn't touted as the series of the year – or even the decade – as it was relatively less-hyped in the media, but then a lot of those series in which Pakistan is involved these days, aren't exactly point-of-talking among cricket fanatics, primarily because you never what new issue may flare up with this mercurial Pakistan side. However, on the other side, Sri Lanka was coming into the series with a few issues that needed to be addressed which were exposed when they lost against England and Australia – the latter lost in Sri Lanka. This defeat one-nil defeat must have not made things any easier for the Sri Lankan Cricket Board, but rather increased it. We'll look to talk about both the teams in this evenly balanced and competitive cricket between the two sub-continent teams.
Talking of issues for Sri Lanka, it was the batting that turned from strength to weakness for a team that has some of the big names with an added flavour of youth blooded into the side to bolster their chances. But it wasn't to be, and this is what Duleep Mendis, chief selector, had to say:
Mendis has been extremely severe on the performance of a team that has now lost three series on a trot. He has questioned the mental approach of the team, the individual performances of the players, and no less, the role of the coaches in the Sri Lankan management. The batting, barring Sangakkara, has been a complete let down which was enough for Pakistan to sniff victory in the 2nd Test. The significance of Lanka's batting was accentuated when it stopped Pakistan from stomping to victory in the 1st Test also, but then it was Pakistan who was to be blamed for their own blunders. Then came the issue of the bowling, that has looked blunt and less threatening even to those watching on the television, a bowling line-up which has found it difficult to fill in the boots of Muralitharan, Vaas and Malinga. The problem for Sri Lanka was further exacerbated with untimely injuries to some of the key players like Prasanna Jayawardena (first choice wicket-keeper), Ajanta Mendis (spinner), Nuwan Kulasekara (medium fast and handy with the bat) and Dammika Prasad (fast bowler).
However, ground-realities are somewhat different in Sri Lanka, like everywhere else. Mendis might have a point to put the blame on players and coaches for his team's dismal performance, especially taking into account that now Sri Lanka has lost to a team that ranks lower than it. He may have a valid point, but that doesn't lessens his responsibility also. Most of them in Sri Lanka find it funny (some are even angry) seeing such statements from their chief selector (during the match) as they have looked to question him now. The glaring issue with the selection that has come under the scanner is the exclusion of a player with a proven record, particularly against Pakistan – Thilan Samaraweera. He was dropped for this Test series against whom he averages better than his overall career average, but even that didn't convince the selectors. This same point, however, might come back to haunt the selectors because to make matters worse, the captain and management didn't select the replacement for a single match either, the fiery and exciting Dinesh Chandimal, as he was part of the squad.
The other aspect of Sri Lanka's falling was even more alarming, even more than their batting. One might brush aside this batting failure on the basis of an old maxim, “form is temporary and class is permanent”. So while it may be true for the batting, with a green bowling attack, this maxim doesn't fit in. In fact it won't be far from truth to say that this bowling attack would struggle in most conditions to even get 20 wickets, which is the most important part to win Test matches. This is exactly what Murali and Vaas did for Sri Lanka for years, the donkey's work, while the batting looked to capitalise on it. But now with no one to do the donkey's work, so to say, it has made their bowling vulnerable and have put batting under extreme pressure, where they are left chasing the game to save it.
As much as it was important for Sri Lanka to come back from two series defeats, it was equally important for Pakistan to do well against team like Sri Lanka. After having played well against West Indies in May and then against Zimbabwe, even a drawn series against Sri Lanka would had done a world of good to Pakistan's confidence. We look to talk about confidence, we can't imagine in what kind of mental state have this very Pakistan team has played a home series, away from home, and then with the spot-fixing saga coming to its rightful, yet tragic, end. No wonder, if to win a series against a better ranked team is a mean feat, then to win when so much that seems to always happen when Pakistan is playing, the credit for that goes to Misbah-ul Haq and his troops. Where Dilshan, as a leader, failed to inspire his team, Misbah always knew what he wanted from his bowlers and what he expected from his batting, due to which it became that much easier for himself to do well as a player. Misbah doesn't bring verve and passion of old into the team, but he made sure that the team didn't lose focus away from cricket, went for the win when the opportunity presented itself and everybody knew exactly what their job was.
It was a contrasting series for both teams, but even the opposition would admit that Pakistan deserved to win the series. If a frank analysis is to be done, apart from the fourth day of 1st Test match when Pakistan made a hash of their own efforts by letting off Sangakkara and keeper Jayawardena to save the match, it was almost a near perfect performance. It was perfect in the sense that the job for a 6th rank team was to win the series and that was carried out perfectly by taking 20 wickets in the first two test matches, while Sri Lankan bowlers managed only once to take opposition's full quota of 10 wickets in an innings in the same period. Pakistan has always been blessed with an amazing history of talented fast bowlers and it was equally amazing to see those bowlers deliver also. The performances of Umar Gul and Junaid Khan was heartening to see as they toiled hard on lifeless pitches, managing adequate seam movement and later to reverse it, while Saeed Ajmal was at his wickedly best, taking the most wickets in the series – 18 wickets.
The one worry that Pakistan has always carried with itself is a question as to whether their batting would come good or not? Though some might argue of Sri Lankan bowlers being less incisive, but those who follow Pakistan cricket would know that this team has the ability to make Marcus North look like a reincarnation of Jim Laker. They would know that Pakistan's batting can implode like an aging structure without any alert. Fortunately, the figures of Pakistani batsmen also give a very good reading where Taufeeq Umar heads the way of most runs scored with a double century to his name and Azhar Ali, finally managing a ton with two solid half-centuries, having the highest average of nearly 66. These two players doing well meant that it put less pressure on the seniors like Misbah and Younis.
It was a case for the Sri Lankan side of inadequacy, inability and to some extent, mental approach to Test cricket, but the onus of rejuvenating life into the team falls on the captain and Dilshan seemed to be out-of-sorts most of the time. As more and more Sri Lankan people complain of irregularities in their cricketing set up, it becomes more and more clear that the focus of the team isn't on cricket. With their next assignment in South Africa next month, it has become imperative for the Sri Lankan board to come clean on issues of politics that have marred their growth and progress.
On the other side, surprisingly things look calmer on Pakistan's front with a steady captain and a team performing well, and a new Chairman of Board, Zaka Ashraf, in the office. An upcoming home series in UAE against the Number 1 side in world, England, is a good opportunity for Pakistan to consolidate on their good run as well as look to keep controversies away from themselves. Having said that, you really don't know with Pakistan. Perhaps they themselves don't know what they might do the next moment.