If India v Pakistan was huge, then there is no gainsaying how big an occasion this is going to be. It’s the semifinal of the ICC World Twenty20, with the champions of the 2009 edition up against the host nation, who should relish the conditions at the R Premadasa Stadium a lot more than they did those in Pallekele.
Thursday’s clash against Pakistan will be Sri Lanka’s first match at the Premadasa, a bastion of sorts for the home team. Yes, Pakistan will have a slight advantage simply because they have played three matches in this competition at the same venue, but quite obviously, no team is as literally at home at the Premadasa as Sri Lanka.
Not too much, therefore, should be read into Pakistan having had a first-hand feel of the conditions in a competitive environment, though Sri Lanka will feel slightly hard done by that they had to wait until the knockout stages to make their first appearance at the national capital.
There is very little to choose between the teams, as generally is the case when you reach this stage of the competition. What should make for a fascinating spectacle, however, is the fact that Sri Lanka and Pakistan have similar strengths and rely on similar weapons, so this will be less a clash of styles than of skills.
Pakistan roughed it out on their way to the semifinals, rallying from the depths of 78 for 7 to post a two-wicket win against South Africa, then crashing to an embarrassing eight-wicket defeat at the hands of India. That big loss to India had threatened to throw a spanner in Pakistan’s works but with elimination looming large, Pakistan picked themselves off the floor, bleeding Australia to death in a command performance orchestrated by the batting of Nasir Jamshed and the class and depth of their enviable spin bowling complement.
Just how much confidence must have returned to the Pakistani ranks after Tuesday’s 32-run victory over Australia isn’t hard to guess. Pakistan are very much a rhythm and confidence side; when they are nervous and edgy, they tend to play their worst cricket but when things are humming and the feel-good factor pervades through the ranks, there is no team more dangerous in world cricket than Pakistan.
Which Pakistan side will turn up on Thursday won’t bother Sri Lanka too much. Silently, Sri Lanka must be thanking their stars that it is Pakistan and not India that they will encounter in the semifinal. That’s not because they believe Pakistan are easier to overcome, but because in recent times, and especially on Sri Lankan soil, India have established tremendous dominance over the hosts, leaving psychological scars that could have been reopened so easily.
Against Pakistan, there is no such recent history. Pakistan don’t have the wood over Sri Lanka, so this will be a straight shootout. It will be a classic battle between equals, with similar strengths and similar approaches. Against most other teams, Sri Lanka would have started as the obvious favourites, but everyone knows that Pakistan aren’t like most other teams.
On paper, Saeed Ajmal shouldn’t be as big a factor against Sri Lanka as against teams from outside the subcontinent, but there is very little place for theory in international cricket, and especially in Twenty20 cricket. Sri Lanka have their own mystery spinners in Ajantha Mendis and Akila Dananjaya, but they will approach Ajmal with respect, if not caution. The man with a ready smile that masks a mean competitive streak will continue to remain a handful, but Sri Lanka will also be wary of the threat Raza Hasan poses with his left-arm spin that has had most teams in a bind.
Hasan doesn’t turn the ball a mile, but he has shown that he doesn’t need to in this format. He has been quick and skiddy but, most importantly, he has been exceptionally accurate with the white new ball. In the three Super Eights games, he has returned figures of 3-1-12-0, 4-0-22-1 and 4-0-14-2, eight of those overs bowled in the Power Plays. Those are extraordinary returns, particularly for a spinner. Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene will have their hands full if Mohammad Hafeez continues to open the bowling with Hasan.
Sri Lanka have been a gathering storm, squeaking past New Zealand in their first Super Eights game but clearly a notch above the West Indies and England in subsequent outings. There is a well-oiled look about the team, well served by their plethora of allrounders – Angelo Mathews, Thisara Perera and the feisty Jeevan Mendis – as well as Mendis and Lasith Malinga, easily the best Twenty20 pace bowler going in the world just now.
One of the reasons why Sri Lanka have struggled against India has been the ease with which the Indian batsmen have been able to dismantle the Malinga threat. No other team can boast of a similar accomplishment. With Jayawardene having multiple options with the new ball, including Nuwan Kulasekara, much under-rated but a vital wicket-taking source, Malinga can slip into his favoured role of a mean death-overs specialist.
Pakistan have thrived on voluble support from the crowd at the Premadasa thus far but on Thursday, most of those at the venue will be rooting for Sri Lanka. Jayawardene has referred to the baying crowd as the 12th man, though he will be hoping the XI on the park get the job done in what will be a rematch of the final of the ICC World Twenty20 2009.