Having whitewashed England 3-0 at home, Sri Lanka was thwarted by Pakistan in the thriller of an opening game of the three-nation ARY Gold Cup. It was a close run thing, but eventually the Lankan challenge to a modest Pakistan total of 255 fizzled out, by a mere 16 runs. The new Pakistan skipper Waqar Younis was an inspiration on the field. He led by example, bowling fast and taking wickets, four in all, but more importantly when it mattered most.
Sharjah always has a rather refreshing effect on the Pakistanis, and Younis having a fresh start as captain, for the first time in his own right, couldn't have wished for a better one. He won the toss and took crucial wickets, the most important of them being that of rival captain Sanath Jayasuriya in the very first over, to stop the Lankan run chase in its tracks.
The Man of the Match award though went to Saeed Anwar, for his 90 off 117 deliveries, 10 short of what would have been his eighth hundred in the desert oasis, but still it was the highest innings of the match.
It, however, was the Pakistan attack, which lived up to its reputation of defending whatever totals its batting line-up had built. And surely, it was 25 to 30 runs short of what they would have liked to put on the board considering the kind of start they had. The so-called slog-overs, the last 10 of the 50, had yielded only 56 with five wickets lost in the bargain.
But a charged-up Waqar Younis made up for that, getting a wicket on his second ball, trapping the hard-hitting Jayasuriya leg before with a fast and straight one. The Lankans made a strong comeback through that pocket dynamo Romesh Kaluwitharana and a sedate Marvan Atapattu. Kaluwitharana did have his share of luck for the edges that flew off the bat, to the boundary as Younis quite inexplicably, took the slips off soon after the start. The diminutive Kaluwitharana however was quick to seize the initiative, and in association with Atapattu seemed to be taking the game out of Pakistan's hands when the duo of off-spinners, Saqlain Mushtaq and his clone Shoaib Malik were introduced into the attack. Young Malik, who had played a little cameo with the bat, contributing a quicksilver 24 off only 20 deliveries and was nimble-footed in the field too, provided the breakthrough by getting Atapattu stumped by Humayun Farhat, the debutant `keeper's first scalp. Bowling tidily, he accounted for Kaluwitharana as well; clean bowling him when he seemed to be destined for greater things. Three for 101 in the 23rd over, and Pakistan had partially swung it back.
From then on wickets kept falling at regular intervals, with Shahid Afridi's fastish leg-spin bowling sending back Mahela Jayawardene and Kumara Sangakkara. Russel Arnold and Indika de Saram in a 50 run stand partially swung it back in Sri Lanka's favour, taking the score to 201 in a stand of 50 for the sixth wicket. Younis brought himself back at this stage, and his leg-cutter bowled Arnold, and his straight one on the last delivery of the 44th over proving too good for Muralitharan. Younis for good measure dealt the next vital blow by clean bowling de Saram and though Chaminda Vass tried to make a fight of it, Saqlain made sure that nothing untoward happened by taking the last two wickets in the penultimate over.
Younis definitely had his say, but the three spinners - Saqlain Mushtaq, Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi - definitely had a big hand in ensuring Pakistan's triumph.
It generally was good for the spinners, for the trio of the Lankan spinners too had set Pakistan back after a rather decent start once Younis had won the toss and quite predictably elected to bat on the placid batting track. The toss was not the only thing that went right for Pakistan to begin with. Soon the openers, Saeed Anwar and Shahid Afridi, were stroking the ball to all parts of the park.
Returning from a groin injury that had ruled him out of the recent Test series against the Black Caps, Anwar seemed to be in sublime touch and started off by hitting Nuwan Zoysa for a couple of boundaries in the second over to get the innings going. Then he was dropped by Atapattu, at 18, a straightforward chance at mid-off. That drop turned out to be a costly lapse as Anwar, on his lucky ground with seven of his 19 hundreds coming here, made the Lankans pay for it.
Afridi on the other end was quite visibly trying to be patient, spacing his characteristic lofted drives with singles and defensive strokes. But having made 21 off 18 deliveries, his principal strokes being two fours and a six, off Zoysa and clouted out of the ground at midwicket, he tried to clear the infield, and holed out. Young debutant Imran Farhat too didn't last long. That brought Inzamam-ul-Haq in, and with Anwar at the other end, the two most seasoned Pakistani campaigners were at the crease. The two between them put on 88 runs for the third wicket when Inzamam went. Anwar and Younis Khan together tried to continue in the same vein but the former got bogged down in the quest for his 20th hundred. Then Anwar and Younis went in quick succession and it was a struggle for the remaining batsmen.
They ultimately put on 255, quite a few less than they thought sufficient at that point, but it turned out to be otherwise in the end.