Malinga helps super Sri Lanka survive Afridi
Sri Lanka survived Shahid Afridi's finest innings and Shoaib Akhtar on comeback through some desperate fielding and lovely bowling from Lasith Malinga. The batsmen before Afridi seemed either incompetent of or uninterested in the chase, the batsmen with him seemed intent on running themselves out, his cramp-induced groans could be heard through the stump microphone, he hobbled the last 17 of his runs, and he had taken Pakistan from 32 for 4 to within 39 of the target when Kumar Sangakkara produced a catch for the ages. Malinga, coming back into ODI cricket, then produced a lethal three-over spell inside the batting Powerplay to wipe the tail off much in the fashion Pakistanis are used to doing with others.
It was a match of top-class performances all through. Shoaib struggled physically through his 10 overs, but bowled with pace and fire to keep Sri Lanka in rebuilding mode, the ever-improving Angelo Mathews scored a fifty with the tail to give Sri Lanka something to bowl at, Malinga had some fun with the Pakistan top order, Afridi played an absolute blinder, and then Malinga finished it off ruthlessly.
Captaincy seems to have done something to Afridi. It was hands down his most mature innings. Don't go by the strike-rate of 143.42, or the seven sixes, or the demolition of Muttiah Muralitharan (51 off 25), this was every bit a batsman's knock and not a happy hitter's. When he walked in, the game was so not on, with four wickets down for 32 in the 14th over.
Afridi then reminded the crowd Pakistan were indeed trying to win the match. Just like that, he smacked the first two balls pitched up to him for sixes. Farveez Maharoof was at the receiving end, and learned his lesson fast: he hardly pitched anything up in the rest of his spell, and bowled some impressive cutters, but didn't court success.
You could sense Sri Lanka were now waiting for the inevitable mistake from Afridi. You could sense Afridi was not going to make that inevitable mistake. The deep fielders waited for catches, all they got was shots to their right or their left that got Pakistan couples. Umar Akmal joined in the process, and the pair began to use the big ground to their advantage. On nine occasions they managed to take couples during their 73-run fifth-wicket stand. In a further exhibition of calculated hitting, Afridi lofted Murali for four sixes in four overs, all over his head, all risk-free.
With cause for worry, Sangakkara brought Malinga back for the 25th over, and Umar set off for a suicidal single having defended straight to short cover. And Tillakaratne Dilshan is not the man to steal sharp singles off. Umar's brother, Kamran Akmal, way better with the batting gloves than the keeping ones, started another important partnership.
Afridi now took his innings to a level higher, finding gaps through the field for fours. Murali was welcomed back with a swept boundary in the 32nd over, taking Afridi to 74, and Pakistan to 154. Off the second ball, Kamran got run out. Still no impact on Afridi. He was not fazed even by a short ball from Malinga that he couldn't spot. A fantastic slower ball followed, which he was deceived by but still managed to glance it for four.
Nuwan Kulasekara came back and bounced Afridi. The effort involved in playing one of those bumpers brought Afridi down like a sack of potatoes. He was 92 then. It isn't clear whether he didn't ask for a runner or wasn't allowed one. In the 40th over, he punched Mathews to the point boundary to reach his hundred. More cramps. In the 41st, he lofted Murali for a fifth six, and before the ball could land, way beyond the straight boundary, Afridi was down on the ground again.
Then came the turning point. Murali got one to break in big, Afridi was cramped down the leg side, it bounced on him, took his glove, went towards slip, and Sangakkara, who had already committed down the leg side, dived to his right and pulled off a one-handed blinder. Sangakkara sensed blood, Abdul Razzaq thought it was time to finish the game off. With 33 required in the last eight, the Powerplay was called for.
Back came Malinga. He bowled to Mohammad Aamer with a 7-2 off-side field, pushed him back with back-of-a-length deliveries, and then gave him a full, reverse-swinging delivery that took out the off stump. Too good. Out came Shoaib, with a chance to redeem what could have been his day. He kept out a yorker, took a single, and was given strike for two balls. He expected another yorker, but got a crazy slower ball and holed out to mid-off. Too good.
Last man Mohammad Asif played out the last ball, and Razzaq refused the single. In the next over, he took a boundary off Murali and a single off the last ball. Last over for Malinga, and of the Powerplay, with 19 required off 24, and one wicket in hand. Razzaq played out four deliveries. Off the fifth he was hit on the thigh and he took the risk of letting Asif play out one delivery. Mistake. Malinga hit the bull's eye. Too good.
While Malinga went on a celebratory run, an injured and broken Afridi couldn't even come for the presentation. Perhaps he didn't deserve to lose on the night, but then again many of his team-mates didn't deserve to win. More importantly Malinga did enough to win.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo