It is a truth universally acknowledged, that seven days ago, disillusionment with the Sri Lankan team was greater than it has been at any point in the past two decades. This was a team that had lost a five-match ODI series at home against Zimbabwe, a first in their history. This was a team that was whitewashed across formats by India at home just weeks earlier, losing all nine games; they had lost fewer home games to India in the entire 1990s. This was a team that couldn’t decide on a coach, settle on a captain, or chance upon a victory. They were just about to play a Test match against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi, a venue where Pakistan had never lost in the format. It was the first match in a two-Test series against Pakistan, who had never lost a Test series in the UAE.
Pakistan-Sri Lanka contests are often unpredictable, but Sri Lanka’s win in Abu Dhabi must still rank as one of the more remarkable in the island nation’s history. Since Pakistan shifted base to the UAE in 2009, England and Australia have combined to play eight Tests against them in the desert, losing seven and never winning one. It is the place Pakistan have sought refuge in after foreign wallopings, relishing grinding opposition to dust in the oppressive heat before spinning them out cheaply. For Sri Lanka to be at their weakest, and even more so playing without their talisman Angelo Mathews, and to match Pakistan and sucker-punch them at the death is an achievement that deserves more attention that it’ll get. But then again, that’s Pakistan-Sri Lanka contests for you.
So the second Test in Dubai takes on a particularly fateful air for the hosts. The second day-night Test at the venue could finally see the sun set on Pakistan’s spotless record at their adopted home. If they cannot pull off a win, it will see Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka!) become the first team to win a Test series against Pakistan in Dubai.
It could very well happen, too. Pakistan came into the series favourites not due to doing anything special themselves, but because of the turmoil of their visitors. The fifth day collapse in Abu Dhabi – an alarming trend over the past two years – reminded everyone how vulnerable they are in the absence of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan. Losing the toss and having to bowl first might have made people notice how frequently they’ve been lucky with the coin at home over the past few Tests; they had won the toss in all home Tests against Australia, Sri Lanka, England and West Indies in the past three years. Whether they can bowl teams out cheaply on the first day is very much up for debate.
For Sri Lanka, who interim coach Nic Pothas recently said were sick of talking about transition, this is a marquee opportunity to build a solid foundation from the rock bottom they reached in the India series. Captain Dinesh Chandimal, who has often been derided as inconsistent, will have found form and confidence with a gritty unbeaten 155, while the evergreen Rangana Herath continues to lurk in the minds of Pakistan’s batsmen, needing no further invitation to prove his class now that he’s joined the elite 400-wicket club.
For both sides, then, this is a rare phenomena. It is a Test that actually really matters.