You’d think Afghanistan versus Sri Lanka shouldn’t be too much of a contest. One team playing only its second World Cup, both via the qualifiers route; the other having been finalists twice in the last three editions.
Yet, for the second World Cup running, the Afghans pushed the Lankans to a corner, and had them staring at embarrassment (although some would argue, given Sri Lanka’s wretched form, that this one wouldn’t have hugely shocking).
In 2015, chasing 233 to win at Dunedin, Sri Lanka found themselves at 18/3 and then 51/4 before a Mahela Jayawardene century and a Thisara Perera cameo took them over the line.
At Cardiff on Tuesday, the Lankans had only 187 runs to defend in a rain-reduced encounter. But despite continuing to wear the frailty of a side that hadn’t won a single ODI against a Full-Member nation this calendar year, the 1996 champions managed to hold on for a 34-run win (DLS) and get themselves off the mark after their 10-wicket surrender against New Zealand on Saturday.
Here’s a look at the standout moments from Match 7 of the ICC World Cup 2019.
Asia’s Sleeping Giants Continue to Wake Up
The opening weekend of the World Cup had been nothing short of a disaster for two sleeping giants of Asian cricket. In recent times, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — world champions from successive editions in 1992 and 1996, respectively — have found themselves oft-tripped by Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and well behind the pace set by India.
Both began their bids at the World Cup with comprehensive hammerings, to West Indies and New Zealand, respectively — performances so abject that they scored a combined total that would classify as under-par (241 from 51 overs).
On Monday, Pakistan tripped tournament favourites England wondrously, and their remarkable victory found its roots in a blazing start. A day later, Sri Lanka may have been up against a significantly lesser challenge in Afghanistan, but their win over an opponent they had lost to by 91 runs in their last meeting was set up by a rare blistering start.
Discounting their solitary ODI win of the year, against Scotland last month, Sri Lanka’s opening partnership averaged 11 in their last six games.
In a bid to redeem those numbers — and to provide a free license to their most destructive batsman — Kusal Perera was bumped up to the top of the order, swapping his number three spot with Lahiru Thirimanne.
Taking the offer gleefully, Perera stamped himself on the opening part of the day. Sri Lanka — bowled out for 136 at the same venue three days earlier — were 79/0 after the first 10 overs, and Perera contributed 37 off those runs from just 28 balls.
Afghans (and Lankans) Wide Off the Mark
In those first 10 overs, 13 of the Lankans’ runs – nearly one-sixth – came via wides.
The Afghans didn’t really improve through the remainder of the innings, and wides contributed 22 to the Sri Lankan total of 201 (more than nine per cent).
The more experienced Sri Lankan attack was guilty of being astray too; they gave away 15 wides. There was a three-over period, in fact, bowled by eventual game-changer Nuwan Pradeep, where he didn’t concede a single run off the bat — but bowled eight wides.
Kusal Perera top-scored for Sri Lanka with 78, and Najibullah Zadran was Afghanistan’s top run-scorer with 43; the third-most significant contributor to the scorecard on the day, if such an entry were possible, was wides with 37.
The Cycle Stand, Part 1
Sri Lanka’s opening stand ended on 92, in 13.1 overs, with the dismissal of Dimuth Karunaratne, and Lahiru Thirimanne continued to build upon the start along with the free-flowing Perera.
At 144/1 in 21 overs, the Lankans were well on course for a total in the region of 350. And then, the wheels came off – spectacularly.
In 113 previous ODIs, Mohammad Nabi had only once taken three wickets against a Test-playing nation. At the Sophia Gardens, he claimed three in one manic over.
Thirimanne played all over a straight delivery to see his stumps disturbed, an arm ball had Kusal Mendis nicking his second ball to slip, and a virtual replay two balls later gave Angelo Mathews his second duck in as many games, making Nabi the first spinner to dismiss three top-six batsmen in one over at the World Cup.
That wasn’t the end of it.
The last ball of the next over saw Hamid Hassan account for Dhananjaya de Silva with a peach, and when Thisara Perera needlessly ran himself out 16 balls later, the Lankans had lost five wickets for 15 in the space of 27 balls.
The spiral never really corrected itself, and by the time rain intervened, Sri Lanka had even lost Perera to a mindless attempt at a reverse sweep off Rashid Khan. Yes, that’s 38/7 in 12 overs.
The Cycle Stand, Part 2
Post the rain-break, Afghanistan bowled their sinking opponents out for 201 runs, and were set a revised target of 187 from 41 overs to register their most famous win of all-time.
Hazratullah Zazai has only one mode of batting, and he displayed just that — a thunderous six over mid-wicket off Suranga Lakmal and a lightning drive off Lasith Malinga the highlights — as the Afghans, despite losing Mohammad Shahzad, were a confident 41/1 in 7.4 overs, their required run rate only a little over four per over.
Isuru Udana’s nagging outside-off-stump line reaped its reward when Rahmat Shah was put out of his misery, departing for 2 off 11 balls.
Five balls later, Zazai’s blaze towards glory was cut short by a piece of magic in the field from Thisara Perera, who ran about 15 yards to his left, dove forward and hung on to a sweetly-timed hook – all this in less than two seconds.
Four overs and 13 runs later, another climber from Nuwan Pradeep sent Hashmatullah Shahidi back to the hut, and Sri Lanka’s stranglehold over the see-sawing momentum was confirmed when Perera breached Nabi’s defense a further five balls later.
In a period of six overs, Afghanistan had lost four wickets for 16, and relinquished their grip on the game.
Of Wides and Wickets: Pradeep Changes the Game
Nuwan Pradeep, when on song, is the best exponent of fiery fast bowling in the present Sri Lankan setup. In the tournament opener, believe it or not, he found himself warming the benches and carrying the drinks.
With the ever-present cloud cover undoubtedly aiding him, he proved just how incorrect that decision had been upon his inclusion in the XI.
Pradeep’s first spell was the catalyst to the Afghan collapse, where he removed the dangerous Zazai and the solid Shahidi with two sharp bouncers. That spell read 5-1-14-2.
When Karunaratne brought him back into the attack, to bowl the 23rd over, the clash was on a knife’s edge. Afghanistan were 105/5 in 22, but rain really threatened to burst out of the clouds above Cardiff, and so the DLS calculators needed to be checked constantly.
At that moment, the Afghans were three runs behind the par-score, but two deliveries took them ahead of the mark – a reverse swat off Dhananjaya de Silva from Najibullah Zadran, followed by a wild Pradeep bouncer which went over the wicketkeeper’s head for five wides.
Two balls after that howler, Pradeep got the Lankans back ahead on the calculation by trapping Afghan captain Gulbadin Naib in front of the stumps.
That brought Rashid Khan out to the middle, and if he were to do anything like his sparkling cameo from the opener against Australia – 27 off 11 balls – it could have been the defining point in an epic see-sawing contest.
Instead, off the fourth ball he faced, and the second from Sri Lanka’s wrecker-in-chief, Rashid saw his stumps shattered by Pradeep. For all practical purposes, that was also the shattering of Afghanistan’s dreams on the day.
Lankan Leaders Seal the Deal
Afghanistan had fallen to 123/7 at the fall of Rashid’s wicket, but Najibullah Zadran — their top-scorer in both matches so far — was waging a lone battle to keep them in the running.
He had seen Lasith Malinga return to the attack and castle Dawlat Zadran with a patented reverse-swinger (almost) in the blockhole.
Malinga, the leader of the bowling attack and the spiritual leader of the Lankan camp, hadn’t tasted victory in a Sri Lankan ODI shirt since July 2017 – that’s 22 matches – and was smelling blood.
But it was the designated captain who pulled the plug on Najib’s vigil. Having just taken two boundaries from the following over, bowled by Udana, Najib had reduced Afghanistan’s target to 42. He hit the last ball of the over to cover, and ran for a single that would allow him to keep strike, only for Karunaratne to strike down the stumps at the non-striker’s end, and send Najib back to the pavilion.
Malinga was back for the next over, and if his yorker from the previous over was near-vintage, the one to clinch the win was bang on the money, reversing straight to the base of the middle stump, under the blade of the batsman, and destroying the furniture.
There were others who began the act of saving face for the Sri Lankans, in the Pereras and the Pradeeps, but their leaders — designated and spiritual — had sealed the deal.