Pakistan ride home on Afridi blitz
Shahid Afridi pulled out a madcap, adrenaline-fuelled special for an adoring crowd as Pakistan presented new captain Shoaib Malik with an impressive first-game win against Sri Lanka at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. The game had tensed up until Afridi's 34-ball 73, including a 32-run over, allowed Pakistan to romp home to their target of 236 with five wickets and eight overs to spare.
Most other days, Kamran Akmal's would have been a leading role, but here he became only a dutiful sidekick. Still, his 51 was his most telling recent contribution and the pair put on 102 in under 11 overs after coming together with Pakistan shaking at 137 for five.
At that point they had just lost their captain, remarkably the third, comically poor run-out from the top order and the rate required was rising. A brisk start from Imran Nazir had been hauled back by that typically Sri Lankan recipe of tight spin and great fielding.
Akmal had already punched and clipped a string of lovely drives when Afridi arrived. Immediately he took his cue, holding back till his eighth ball, when he jumped at Sanath Jayasuriya and miscued high to extra cover. Thereafter, there was no stopping him.
Jayasuriya was driven and swept and Malinga Bandara, who had bowled well until then, was similarly dismissed. Even then, a maiden from Lasith Malinga tipped the situation back to a delicate balance, but it was the next over from Bandara, the 39th of the innings, that sealed it.
Between the straight boundary and point, Afridi scythed, drove, slapped and miscued two fours and four successive sixes, in the process bringing up his fifty off 22 balls. Remarkably, he has made five quicker ones himself. It constituted the second-most expensive over in ODI history, Pathans around the ground went wild, the game all but over. A couple more Afridi tonks and three overs later, it was over.
Until then, little had separated the teams. Pakistan's nerve-ridden batting had mirrored that of Sri Lanka's. After Malik had lost his first toss, he would have looked back at the total he conceded with equal parts pleasure and regret: his bowlers had done well early, but faced with an accomplished 54-ball 69 from Farvez Maharoof, they allowed Sri Lanka to post what appeared a total with a chance.
Malik had felt emboldened enough to spring a surprise of sorts, opening with Mohammad Sami instead of Umar Gul. It was a loaded statement, coming good on his promise of more aggression, while also injecting confidence into an ever needy soul.
Sami wavered, however, so it was fortunate that Mohammad Asif was present at the other end. As if he'd never been away of course. Out came immediately the probing line and nasty lengths and an exemplary eight-over spell, of 16 runs and the wicket of Jayasuriya was about par for his course.
Malik marshaled away from extra cover, unafraid to tamper the field and possibly realising the folly of his opening gambit, brought on Gul. Having gone for 19 already, Gul bore fruit with two wickets in eight balls.
Pakistan also had their fielding to thank: Salman Butt's smart outfield work saw the back of Upul Tharanga. Two more run-outs materialised though whether it was because of Malik's perkiness in the field or the Abu Dhabi air - Pakistan effected four run-outs on this ground against India last year - we can't be certain.
Until Maharoof and Chamara Silva arrived in fact, Sri Lanka's batsmen had been wasteful; pretty, solid, classy shots, but all too brief and it left his side in some strife. Thereafter though, as Pakistan froze, their batting wisened up. First Silva and Prasanna Jayawardene hustled them back, with an entertaining but short-lived partnership.
Silva blustered on and settled with Farvez Maharoof. But just as both appeared ready to launch, typically of Sri Lanka in this innings, Silva was gone. Maharoof carried on regardless. He'd already driven and punched through covers in stellar fashion, and by the time he thumped Razzaq over his head and tickled him fine he was boiling over.
Gul and Sami came back to tackle the troublesome death overs, with some poise to begin. Maharoof and Sri Lanka had managed only two boundaries in the five overs before the last one; a single in the penultimate over brought up the fifty. In the last over, he exploded, playing out three dot balls, but driving and flicking a six and two fours off the other three. A spectacular end it was, but barely a patch on the final finish some time later.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo