After missing Sri Lanka's T20 and ODI series against Bangladesh due to injury, Mahela Jayawardene (L) will be back in action in the opening Asia Cup match against holders Pakistan at Fatullah today. Photos: Firoz Ahmed
On the face of it a Sri Lanka versus Pakistan contest does not exactly fit the definition of a grand beginning to the 12th Asia Cup in Bangladesh. After all it does not have the glamour of an India-Pakistan match and with the hosts not featuring it is not expected to attract a large crowd.
However, a closer look would suggest that these two teams are better placed to win this edition than the remaining contestants. Sri Lanka have been here for a month and by now probably know the conditions as well as the locals. Pakistan arrived on the back of two confident series wins against South Africa and Sri Lanka. Also adding to their advantage is the similarity between the conditions in the UAE, where they have been playing all of their home matches, and Dhaka.
India loses a bit of ground because of their recent slump. They have not won a game in their last seven appearances and will look to revive under stand-in captain Virat Kohli. Bangladesh remain in their perennial 'underdog' position with Afghanistan joining in.
There's not much to choose between the two teams in the opener. The teams recently played a five-match series in the UAE, which Pakistan won 3-2, and they probably should have memorised each other's tactics by now.
Mohammad Hafeez, who scored three centuries in that series and maintained a staggering average of 150, will be the key-man here. Captain Misbahul Haq too starred with the bat and had an average of 75. There was not an individual batsman to speak of with regards to Sri Lanka; it was a combined effort that brought them the two wins. However, dashing opener Kusal Perera and Kumar Sangakkara hit form against Bangladesh and will be looking to build on the momentum. The only new factor that could come into play is the return of Mahela Jayawardene, who did not play the series against Pakistan and is expected to return today after having had a break due to his finger injury.
Sri Lanka's comparatively weak bowling department could prove crucial in this tournament and also in today's game. Nuwan Kulasakera and Rangana Herath's injuries have pegged them back a bit. Pakistan, on the other hand, have the highest ODI wicket-takers of the last twelve months --Saeed Ajmal and Junaid Khan -- and this will be their strong point.
The head-to-head stats in the Asia Cup further illustrate why there is not much to choose between them. Sri Lanka may have won eight out of the 12 times the two sides met in the tournament, but Pakistan came out as victors thrice in Bangladesh.
Aizaz Cheema's four-wicket burst helped Pakistan overcome the Lions in 2012. However, Cheema is not even in the squad and it just shows how much has changed since then. With both these sides at each other's throats, the opening encounter despite not having the traditional glamour, promises to pave the way for a dramatic Asia Cup 2014.