Sri Lanka and Pakistan begin their three-match one-day international series in Abu Dhabi on Friday with events off the field providing a twist to a tournament whose status was unclear till a few days ago. With sponsors and television channels showing little enthusiasm, and several senior players crying off, interest in the series has been renewed by the appointment of Shoaib Malik as Pakistan captain and, more surprisingly, Mohammad Asif as his deputy.
An early exit from the World Cup, coupled with Inzamam-ul-Haq's retirement from ODIs, necessitated changes at the leadership level. Following Younis Khan's refusal to take over, the selectors opted for youth and chose Malik, the allrounder, to lead the side. Asif, in the news for all the wrong reasons following last year's doping scandal, is short of match practice after missing the World Cup due to injury. The ability of the captain and his deputy to shoulder such responsibilities at this stage in their careers, in the absence of a coach, will be scrutinised.
Malik seems to have shrugged off the nerves and said he was confident of a revival. The squad has a few new faces, with the likes of Fawad Alam, the allrounder, and Najaf Shah, the left-arm seamer. The experience of Younis, who opted out because of commitments with Yorkshire, will be missed while the return of Abdul Razzaq, who missed the World Cup due to a knee injury, will boost the side.
The mood should be more relaxed in the Sri Lankan camp, with a few seniors opting to sit out owing to their county commitments. Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara are absent, thereby handing opportunities to young players who failed to make the World Cup squad, most notably Chamara Kapugedera, the lower-order batsman.
The two new faces in the squad are Malinda Warnapura, the left-handed middle-order batsman and Ishara Amerasinghe, the right-arm fast-medium bowler. Both have performed creditably for the Sri Lanka A side, with Warnapura impressing the selectors in the Duleep Trophy in India last season and in the series against Bangladesh A recently. Amerasinghe, drafted in in Vaas's absence, bowls with a side-on action similar to Lasith Malinga's, and is expected to fight for a spot with four seamers in the squad.
The teams will be tested by Abu Dhabi's intense heat at this time of the year, with the temperatures hovering around the 40-degree mark. That prompted the organisers to delay the start time by an hour, with the matches scheduled to begin at 4PM local time. The organisers will also cross their fingers for a decent turnout, the location of the stadium on the outskirts of the city making accessibility a problem.