Afridi leads Pakistan to tense win
Pakistan 146 for 7 (Afridi 39*, Malinga 3-26) beat Sri Lanka (Mathews 50) by three wickets
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Maturity is an adjective that, at best, can only be sporadically applied to Shahid Afridi, but it was the hallmark of his blitz against Sri Lanka, as he struck an unbeaten 39 from 20 to lift his side to a three-wicket win in Dubai. Arriving at the crease with 50 to get off 35, Afridi was discerning in his attack, even as wickets continued to fall at the other end. The crowd may remember the big blows that carved chunks from the required total, but Afridi's thoughtful singles were as vital to Pakistan's victory, as he lionised the strike while Pakistan's remaining batting talent dwindled, largely thanks to Lasith Malinga, who took his best Twenty20 haul in over a year.
Afridi had been instrumental with his sharp, varied legspin as well, conceding only 20 from his four overs as Sri Lanka spluttered to 145 for 5. Though this score was only five less than captain Dinesh Chandimal had hoped for at the toss, it seemed insufficient on a decent batting surface, not given to extravagant turn. Mohammad Hafeez' hope that dew would hamper the side bowling second also came to fruition, as Sri Lanka delivered occasional shockers that sealed their fate.
Two sixes from Afridi off Nuwan Kulasekara's 16th over was his first definitive play, as he walloped a knee-length full toss high into the stands, before crashing one over deep cover when Kulasekara resigned himself to going full and wide. After that over Pakistan needed 29 off 24, with five wickets in hand, but immediately, Malinga's four-run over, in which he also claimed a wicket, reclaimed ground for Sri Lanka.
Thirteen runs off Thisara Perera's 18th over, though, all but secured the result for Pakistan. Malinga delivered another miserly six deliveries in between, but with six needed off the final over, Afridi knelt and swept Kulasekara's first ball over long-leg.
Before Afridi arrived, Pakistan's leisurely innings had not seemed so different from Sri Lanka's. Both sides had largely progressed at around 6.5 an over, with several batsmen earning starts but falling before achieving a substantial score. Sharjeel Khan plowed on through the early overs, as he and Hafeez put on 57 for the second wicket, but they both fell against the run of play. Sohaib Maqsood had also seemed promising in his 13.
Mathews had rode good fortune to his 34-ball 50, surviving an almost-plumb lbw shout off Afridi on 17, before being dropped in the 18th over, in which he also made his most dramatic gains. In his fourth Twenty20, right-armer Bilawal Bhatti pitched full and then short early in the over, and Mathews took consecutive boundaries in front of square on the leg side. The next ball was back of a length and Mathews' top-edged heave should have been caught by Hafeez, running back from cover, but he failed to settle under it. Mathews would strike one more to the fence, taking the over-tally to 18.
Hafeez had known his experienced slow bowlers held the key to restricting Sri Lanka, and he began the bowling himself, before bringing Ajmal and Afridi on in the middle overs to keep Sri Lanka's modest run-rate in hand. Only the occasional loose delivery marred the Powerplay overs, in which a vital dynamic was established: if Sri Lanka wanted boundaries, they would largely have to manufacture them at some peril.
Aside from that Bhatti over, Pakistan stamped down on every Sri Lanka surge, as the batsmen rarely found release apart from when they skipped down the track or played pre-meditated strokes. It did not help that signs of rust were evident for almost every Sri Lanka batsman. Kusal Perera and Kumar Sangakkara were timing the ball well, but neither excelled in shot placement, and both departed trying to find spaces in the outfield. Though Mathews' power sent his big strokes to the fence, he will also reflect that it was far from his most fluent knock.
Mahela Jayawardene's absence allowed Dinesh Chandimal to push himself up to a more-favoured No.3, but although he hit his first Twenty20 score in excess of 15 in over two years, he was trapped in front for a run-a-ball 22. The ball that drifted in and straightened from Afridi was almost the right-handed equivalent of Kusal's dismissal, for 15, to Ajmal.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here