The essence of T20 cricket is fearlessness. On Thursday it was young Afghan Rashid Khan who demonstrated this trait with his leg-spin bowling and almost made a mockery of World T20 champions Sri Lanka’s top order batsmen.
The 17-year-old Rashid showed absolutely no nerves as he repeatedly bamboozled the opponents with his top spinners, googlies and occasional leg spin. But for the 11 runs he conceded in his last over, the youngster was an absolute revelation, both for his bowling and the confidence with which he delivered it. Certainly he is the one to watch out for.
Luckily for Sri Lanka, veteran Tillekeratne Dilshan rolled back the years to bat in vintage fashion to take the team past a challenging total. He was not shy of trying his range of unorthodox shots, though he could never connect with the switch-hit and the reverse sweep which he tried on occasions. But the ‘Dilscoop’, his innovative trademark, came good as did his repeated sweeping across the line.
Dilshan’s unbeaten 83 (3x6, 8x4, 56 balls) was in the end the difference between the two sides once Afghanistan had shown a lot of pluck in posting 153 despite early setbacks. Sri Lanka’s win, which came with six wickets and seven balls to spare, might seem comfortable in terms of margin of victories in T20 cricket but it came amid much drama and anxiety for the champions.
Afghanistan were ultimately vanquished. But they certainly were not disgraced. They showed enough pluck and skill to run the Lankans ragged. Besides Rashid and off spinner Mohammad Nabi, they found their heroes in batsmen Asghar Stanikzai and Samiullah Shenwari after opting to bat first.
The magnificent Eden Gardens was not packed to the rafters like it was for the previous match between Pakistan and Bangladesh but it still held plenty of support for both teams. Opting to bat, skipper Stanikzai who came in at the fall of opener Mohammad Shahzad’s wicket, waded into the Lankan bowling with élan.
His knock of 62 from 47 balls (4x6, 3x4) and the 61-run stand for the fifth wicket with Shenwari (31; 14 balls, 3x6, 2x4) was pivotal in their surge which saw the team add an impressive 102 runs in the last nine overs. That included 17 runs from the final over bowled by a usually parsimonious Nuwan Kulasekara when the left-handed Najibullah Zadran blasted 12 runs from the only three balls he faced (3 balls, 1x6, 1x4).
When Sri Lanka’s turn came to bat, off-spinner Mohammed Nabi, one of the Afghanistan veterans to have played in Pakistan’s Super League, struck a huge blow when he got rid of Dinesh Chandimal (18) while Rashid made a mickey out of left-hand batsman Lahiru Thirimanne (6 from 13 balls).
At the other end, Dilshan batted with great enterprise. He tried a number of audacious strokes, as is his wont. Importantly though, it did not get him into trouble. There were a few hits and misses but he still succeeded in plundering runs at will.
Sri Lanka lost Thisara Perera (12) and Chamara Kapugedara (10) at inopportune moments but skipper Angelo Mathews (21 n.o. from 10 balls) stepped in at the right time to make his presence felt.
Additionally, Afghanistan’s ground fielding left a lot to be desired. On three occasions at least, their fielders let the ball slip through for boundaries. They conceded more than a dozen runs with such shoddy fielding and in a close match it made all the difference between winning and losing.
But Afghanistan showed enough proficiency with bat and ball to make the discerning sit up and take note. They were expected to be cannon-fodder for the bigger teams but on the day they battled Lanka on level terms.
For champions Lanka too, the match held some takeaways. The encouraging return to form of their ageing batting star Dilshan would be welcomed. Angelo Mathews struck some hefty blows under pressure. If the other batsmen chip in, Lanka’s bowlers can mount a serious challenge.
They rested pacer Lasith Malinga in a bid to give him more time to recover for the bigger battles. The others did not really let their team down. But there is no denying that a rampaging West Indies powered by Chris Gayle will be a different kettle of fish in their next match in Bengaluru.