The presence of Angelo Mathews, their best all-round cricketer and one of the best short-format bowlers in the world should raise the profile of the Sri Lankan team. © BCCI

The presence of Angelo Mathews, their best all-round cricketer and one of the best short-format bowlers in the world should raise the profile of the Sri Lankan team. © BCCI

When UAE play Scotland or Ireland, you’d expect things not to go their way. But, prior to arriving in Dhaka for the Asia Cup 2016, UAE got the better of Scotland in a one-off Twenty20 International in Dubai and then, in Abu Dhabi, they lost one and won one against Ireland, also in T20Is. That momentum must have helped as UAE took on Afghanistan in the first qualifier of the Asia Cup and won by 16 runs. Getting past Hong Kong and Oman after that wasn’t too tough, and not only are UAE the surprise participants in the Asia Cup proper now, they are also gung-ho about carrying on the good work and slaying a giant or two.

The first opportunity for UAE to do that is against Sri Lanka at Sher-e-Bangla Stadium in Mirpur on Thursday (February 25) in what will be the second fixture of the Asia Cup.

Sri Lanka have won the Asia Cup five times, the same as India, but the format this time is different – T20s – and Sri Lanka aren’t quite the force they have been at various points in the past. The retirements of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara have certainly hit the team hard and that period of transition all teams must experience from time to time hasn’t gone terribly well for Sri Lanka so far. Thankfully for them, Lasith Malinga is back at the helm and Angelo Mathews has returned from injury. The presence of their best all-round cricketer and one of the best short-format bowlers in the world should raise the profile of the Sri Lankan team, which struggled in India just over a week ago in a three-T20I series, winning the first as India’s batting imploded but then faltering in the next two.

But a team headlined by Malinga and Mathews, as well as Tillakaratne Dilshan at the top of the order, Dinesh Chandimal and Chamara Kapugedara slightly lower down, Thisara Perera adding great T20 beef, and Rangana Herath and Sachithra Senanayake, can never be counted out. Those are just the big names. There’s also a sprinkling of interesting young talent, including Dushmantha Chameera, Dasun Shanaka and Shehan Jayasuriya, all thought of highly back home.

Sri Lanka have had just one training session since arriving in Dhaka, but Thisara will have taken back good memories from his time at the Bangladesh Premier League late last year, when he played a few good hands for Rangpur Riders with bat and ball, while Dilshan finished fifth in the run-scorers’ list with 260 runs from ten innings, scored at a strike-rate of 133.33.

Herath is another one who should be looking forward to the tournament. The last time he played a T20I was on April 6, 2014. He returned 1 for 23 then, as Sri Lanka beat India to win the World T20. That was also in Mirpur and he must be looking forward to bowling here.

It has been difficult to call the Sher-e-Bangla pitch. The sky has alternated between sunny and cloudy, and there has been rain and hail, more of which is forecast on the morrow. At the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh recently, the Mirpur pitches had enough for pacers. But those matches were played in the day. This is night stuff. Traditionally, though, these are batting-friendly conditions with only the first few overs tough to negotiate.

On reputation, UAE are not a match for Sri Lanka, but that doesn’t matter as much in T20 cricket as it might in one-dayers. Rohan Mustafa, the 27-year-old opener and offspinner, was the star with a 50-ball 77 and 3 for 19 against Afghanistan, while the bespectacled Mohammad Shahzad and Muhammad Usman scored crucial runs against Oman and Hong Kong, and Mohammad Naveed put in some impressive performances with his pace.

“We think we have a chance, an outside chance, against all the big teams, simply because in T20s, a couple of early wickets, a few good overs with the bat, and you can win,” said Amjad Javed, the UAE captain, on the eve of the match. “We feel confident, because we have beaten Scotland, Ireland and now Afghanistan. So our plans are falling in place. It’s an experience for us here, an education, and we have nothing to lose. So we’ll give it our best.”

That they must. And they would hope that Shaiman Anwar, the star middle-order batsman who didn’t do much in the qualifiers, gets his best game back for the main event. Sri Lanka are the favourites, no questions there. But there are inconsistencies in that line-up, and UAE would be backing themselves to exploit those.

Teams (from)
Sri Lanka: Lasith Malinga (capt), Angelo Mathews, Dushmantha Chameera, Dinesh Chandimal, Niroshan Dickwella, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Rangana Herath, Shehan Jayasuriya, Chamara Kapugedara, Nuwan Kulasekara, Thisara Perera, Sachithra Senanayake, Dasun Shanaka, Milinda Siriwardena, Jeffrey Vandersay.

UAE: Amjad Javed (capt), Ahmed Raza, Fahad Tariq, Farhan Ahmed, Mohammad Naveed, Mohammad Shahzad, Muhammad Kaleem, Muhammad Usman, Swapnil Patil, Qadeer Ahmed, Rohan Mustafa, Saqlain Haider, Shaiman Anwar, Usman Mushtaq, Zaheer Maqsood.