Big picture: A fresh chapter for Sri Lanka
The Afghanistan men’s team has played seven Tests in their history; for Sri Lanka, this is the first of eight (perhaps nine) scheduled for 2024. This is, on the surface, a mismatch.
Rashid Khan is not with Afghanistan to provide his menacing legbreaks and general inspiration – he is still recovering from back surgery, and has not played competitive cricket since November. Their most experienced spinner in a nation where spin frequently decides matches is left-arm wristspinner Zahir Khan, who has an average of 44.90 from his four Tests. And having arrived in Sri Lanka only on Tuesday night, they have given themselves less than three days to acclimatise. This, increasingly, is the amount of respect Tests are given in some parts of the world.
Where Afghanistan will feel they can meet Sri Lanka on more equal terms, however, is with the bat. In the shorter formats, Ibrahim Zadran has had success against Sri Lanka, as has Rahmat Shah, while captain Hashmatullah Shahidi averages 53.57 in Test cricket. In the ODIs Afghanistan have played in Sri Lanka, it is their batting that has most impressed. They will take no little confidence in their recent dominance over Sri Lanka’s bowling in that format.
Sri Lanka are at the beginning of a fresh chapter – Dhananjaya de Silva is getting his first Test at the helm. So far, he has not promised anything radical. A greater emphasis on fielding, perhaps, but no wholesale overhauling of strategy or personnel. He has been a dynamic presence in the Sri Lanka Test side, having lately grown into a decent lower-middle-order batter, who contributes substantially with ball and in the field as well. How he marshals an attack without any out-and-out matchwinners and how frequently he bowls himself will make for fascinating viewing.
Sri Lanka LLWWL (last five Tests, most recent first)
In the spotlight: Dimuth Karunaratne and Ibrahim Zadran
Dimuth Karunaratne had asked to step down from the captaincy after the last World Test Championship cycle. The selectors had asked him to hang on for one more year, but have now finally let him go. Karunaratne is the only Sri Lanka player to have made the ICC’s Test teams of the year since 2017 – he has been there three times, including in 2023 – and, since the start of 2021, has averaged 56.18, outstanding for an opener. If there are good batting days at SSC, which is his home ground in domestic cricket, expect him to cash in.
Ibrahim Zadran‘s ODI scores against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka are: 22, 54, 98, 162, 10, 106. It is around him that the top order has tended to rally on the island, and from him they have taken cues on how to play spin. He has not been quite so consistent in Tests, with three fifties in the ten innings he has played so far. But with the SSC surface expected to be decent for batting over the first three days (and particularly after the first morning), Ibrahim is best placed from his side to make a substantial score.
Sri Lanka have a settled batting order but may toy with the idea of playing a third seamer if they feel Afghanistan are susceptible to good seam bowling.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Dimuth Karunaratne, 2 Nishan Madushka, 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Angelo Mathews, 5 Dinesh Chandimal, 6 Dhananjaya de Silva (capt), 7 Sadeera Samarawickrama (wk), 8 Ramesh Mendis/Kasun Rajitha, 9 Prabath Jayasuriya, 10 Asitha Fernando, 11 Vishwa Fernando
Shahidi spoke on the eve of the match about testing Sri Lanka’s batters with pace, which could mean that Mohammad Saleem is in for a Test debut. Zahir will likely be among the frontline spinners, with left-arm fingerspinner Zia-ur-Rehman another possible option, especially as Zia can add value with the bat.
Afghanistan (probable): 1 Ibrahim Zadran, 2 Abdul Malik, 3 Rahmat Shah, 4 Hashmatullah Shahidi (capt), 5 Nasir Jamal, 6 Bahir Shah, 7 Ikram Alikhil (wk), 8 Zia-ur-Rehman, 9 Yamin Ahmadzai, 10 Mohammad Saleem, 11 Zahir Khan
There was a tinge of green at the SSC on the eve of the game, which suggests there will be some seam movement on the first morning. Expect it to flatten out and get better for spin later, however. At first glance, this did not seem the spinner’s paradise the SSC has often been for Tests over the past six years. The weather has been relatively dry in Colombo over February. Only brief showers are forecast.