Where not so long ago, bilateral ODI series in T20 World Cup years lacked context, the ODI Super League has helped bring some importance to these fixtures. Neither Sri Lanka nor Zimbabwe are particularly well-placed on the table. Sri Lanka have 42 points, which puts them at seventh and could easily be pushed out of the top eight, where they will need to be to automatically qualify for the next ODI World Cup. Their position is especially precarious because they have played 15 of their possible 24 matches; every team below them on the table has played fewer.
Zimbabwe, meanwhile, have played only nine of their matches, but are dead last on the table, with 25 points (equal with the Netherlands, but worse on net run rate).
When the last time these teams met in a bilateral series on the island in 2017, however, Zimbabwe emerged victors in a closely-fought five-match series. Then, the runs of Hamilton Masakadza and Solomon Mire had been vital to Zimbabwe’s triumph. Both batters are now retired, however. Allrounder Sikandar Raza, who had also been instrumental in that series, has made the trip, however.
As their Super League standing suggests, ODIs are perhaps Sri Lanka’s weakest format. They go into this series without a permanent head coach, with Rumesh Ratnayake filling in as interim coach. Also missing are Kusal Perera and Wanindu Hasaranga, who are injured, Avishka Fernando, who tested positive for Covid, Dhananjaya de Silva, who is on paternity leave, and Lahiru Kumara, who failed a skin-folds Test.
Zimbabwe coach Lalchand Rajput, who had been in Sri Lanka since the Lanka Premier League, is also likely to be absent from his team’s dressing room for the first two matches, as he has tested positive for Covid as well.
(completed matches, most recent first)
Zimbabwe LWLLL Sri Lanka WLWWL
In the spotlight
In Zimbabwe’s last ODI series here, Sikandar Raza had hit 137 runs at an average of 68.5 and a strike rate of 108, frequently producing important innings from the lower middle order. He had also taken four wickets with his offspin. Raza comes into the series with five scores of 45 or more in his last nine ODI innings. But Zimbabwe have not played ODIs since September, so this isn’t form exactly.
Maheesh Theekshana has been one of Sri Lanka’s finds of 2021, and in the absence of Hasaranga, will likely shoulder more responsibility in the middle overs. He’s only played one ODI so far, but in T20s, he’s been economical in the powerplay, and difficult to hit in the middle overs, mainly because he has been as much an agent of accuracy as mystery.
Pitch and conditions
Pallekele, where all three matches will be played, has a reputation as one of the more seamer-friendly venues on the island, particularly under lights, when the ball can nip around. The forecast is largely clear for Sunday.
In the absence of several key players, Kusal Mendis may return to the XI for the first time since he was suspended for breaking Covid protocols in June last year. He may open the batting following an excellent LPL at the top of the order. Dinesh Chandimal may also slot into the middle order, following his good LPL returns as a finisher, as well. With Chameera only recently having recovered from Covid, there is a chance he will not play this match.
In the absence of the newly-retired Brendan Taylor, 28-year-old opener Takudzwanashe Kaitano could get an ODI debut. Elsewhere, legspinning allrounder Tinotenda Mutombodzi could slot into the lower middle order. Blessing Muzarabani, who had had a good tour of Ireland, will lead the seam attack.
Zimbabwe (possible): 1 Regis Chakabva (wk), 2 Takudzwanashe Kaitano, 3 Craig Ervine (capt.), 4 Wesley Madhevere, 5 Sean Williams, 6 Sikandar Raza, 7 Tinotenda Mutombodzi, 8 Ryan Burl, 9 Wellington Masakadza, 10 Blessing Muzarabani, 11 Richard Ngarava
Stats and trivia
Sri Lanka have won 44 matches and lost only 11 to Zimbabwe. They’d never lost an ODI at home to Zimbabwe until that 2017 series, in which they lost three.
Raza averages 47.4 with the bat, and strikes at 103, against Sri Lanka, across 10 ODIs.
Theekshana took 4 for 37 in the only ODI he’s played, against South Africa, in Colombo.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf