Afridi bowls Pakistan to series win
Try as Sri Lanka might, keeping Shahid Afridi from tinkering with matches is proving beyond them currently. Having laughed, and walloped, in the face of a taut game two nights ago, Afridi conjured up another opportune intervention to lead Pakistan to a 98-run win and a series triumph at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
Afridi's bowling has kept his place in the team in recent months. The leg-spin is more pick n' mix than mystical, but its effectiveness is in little doubt. Shoaib Malik knew it when he shunned the third powerplay and brought him on as early as the 17th over.
He had little choice, for Sri Lanka were picking their way delightfully into a daunting 314-run target. Their openers had set the tone, in a wonderfully free-spirited, attacking opening. Mohammaf Asif and Mohammad Sami attacked in contrasting manner, Chamara Kapugedera and Upul Tharanga responded in kind. By the fifth over, Tharanga was putting away Asif for three fours, of which the last - a punch down the ground - was the pick.
Two wickets fell, whereupon began the real game. Outside Australia, there cannot currently be a more assured presence at the crease than Mahela Jayawardene. If Pakistan needed proof, he soon gave it to them. Having already clipped Sami square, he pulled Umar Gul so elegantly that the resulting gargantuan six seemed too uncouth a result for it. Tharanaga kept up, driving Asif relentlessly; in the 15th over, a fifty union came up, as well as, staggeringly, the 100.
It was then that Afridi's itchy fingers clicked. Tharanga fell in his second over and almost every delivery asked a question different from the last. Some bounced, some spun more, some went the other way, some had more hustle. Malik, who had come on himself, ensured that runs dried up.
Both went through their ten overs unchanged, Afridi adding Chamara Silva and Prasanna Jayawardene to his tally. The latter, dismissed one over after Malik trapped Tillakaratne Dilshan, effectively ended the match. Jayawardene, the skipper, refused to forego his grace under fire but when he fell at the start of the third Powerplay, with him went the series.
As with the chase, so with the fielding: Sri Lanka were well in at various stages only to give it away. Having started by resting Lasith Malinga and Sanath Jayasuriya, the World Cup finalists didn't help their cause.
An attack more notable for who wasn't there rather than who was thus presented Pakistan's batting with plentiful gifts. Salman Butt and Yasir Hameed took advantage, with a blazing sun and a no-frills track to help, to post a pair of pretty fifties.
Ruchira Perera in particular seemed to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed: left-arm and of indeterminate pace he may be, Chaminda Vaas he isn't. The no-ball to begin the innings was careless, the two leg-side half-volleys that Butt clipped through square leg were worse.
It was a recurring leitmotif in those first overs, Perera honing in on Butt's shins and toes, the batsman honing in on the square leg hoarding. Dilhara Fernando was quicker, but no better. Though he sent back Imran Nazir early, the start had been given away.
Butt and Hameed slipped into a delicious groove, their timing not betraying lengthy absences. Not a slog was seen during the duo's 98-run partnership, as befits batsmen of such poise, yet they still went at nearly a run a ball. Drives, angled bats, flicks, punches all slipped past fielders on the surface rather than the air, Butt bringing up an important fifty - his first in 15 months - inevitably putting Perera away.
Sri Lanka then clawed back in: Farvez Maharoof had already brought in some discipline but Malinga Bandara's arrival gave his side a chance. That 32-run over actually defaced a decent spell and so it showed here; Hameed was troubled then and was troubled now. Upon reaching fifty, he immediately chipped a lame drive back.
Two more Bandara overs later, bravely flighted much of it, Butt did likewise. Malik, keen to impose, succeeded in a dangerous dance down the pitch once, but succumbed in Bandara's next over striving for an encore.
Dilshan helped out, a spell typifying what modern ODI offspin bowling has become: flat, speared in, little turn and hardly time to blink between balls. Boundaries vanished, runs threatened to and wickets fell just when they needn't have.
Sri Lanka had hopes of restricting Pakistan to under 300 then, but four dropped catches and one poor over from Maharoof spoiled it. Ultimately, as they squandered a good start to Afridi, it mattered not.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo