Sri Lanka 179 for 6 (Mendis 36, Nissanka 35, Gunathilaka 33, Rajapaksa 31, Mujeeb 2-30, Naveen 2-40) beat Afghanistan 175 for 6 (Gurbaz 84, Ibrahim 40, Madushanka 2-36) by four wickets
Last Saturday, Sri Lanka were all out for 105 against Afghanistan. Just seven days later, though, the very same batters put in a strong all-round performance - this time batting second, out of choice - to thwart Afghanistan's challenge and complete a four-wicket win in the first match of the Super 4 round of the 2022 Asia Cup.
Even though the highest individual score for Sri Lanka was 36, many of their batters chipped in, pulling their weight with a target of 176 in front of them. Kusal Mendis provided the early assault, Pathum Nissanka showed his many gears, Danushka Gunathilaka helped them shift the momentum, and as the game entered the death overs, Bhanuka Rajapaksa and Wanindu Hasaranga mauled the Afghanistan bowling to help the competition's official hosts win with five balls to spare.
However, it wasn't all about the Sri Lanka batters. Rahmanullah Gurbaz's special innings of 84 off 45 balls meant Afghanistan were eyeing 200 at one stage, but the Sri Lanka bowlers restricted them to a much-lower total.
Maheesh Theekshana conceded just eight runs off his two overs at the death, Hasaranga went for only 23 in his four overs, and left-arm seamer Dilshan Madushanka took 2 for 37. Overall, it was the highest successful T20I chase in Sharjah and, more importantly, gave Sri Lanka two points on the Super 4 table.
For Afghanistan, it was a first T20I loss after posting a 170-plus total. They will now have to recover quickly, otherwise a slide is a realistic possibility with fixtures against India and Pakistan to follow. Rashid Khan went for 39, no other batter apart from Gurbaz looked fluent, and the 2022 Asia Cup suddenly seems very wide open.
The Gurbaz show
It was an early reprieve for Gurbaz that kickstarted the Afghanistan innings' lift-off. After hitting his first six of the day in the third over, Gurbaz tried to repeat the same on the next ball but ended up hitting it to long-off where Gunathilaka took the catch but stepped on the boundary skirting in the process.
Gurbaz's eight off five balls soon became 50 off 22 as he continued finding boundaries, preferring the region between long-on and deep midwicket most. With Hazratullah Zazai struggling to a 16-ball 12 before being bowled by Madushanka, and Ibrahim Zadran, the No. 3, slow off the blocks, it was Gurbaz's attacking shots that brought up the team fifty in 6.1 overs.
The pitch was two-paced - there was the occasional low bounce - but Gurbaz rallied on to take Afghanistan to 70 for 1 by the eighth over. But no boundary in the next four overs brought Sri Lanka back into the game. Gurbaz, though, dragged the momentum back in Afghanistan's favour by finding sixes off Dasun Shanaka and Chamika Karunaratne in back-to-back overs, and Ibrahim joined in with a few lusty blows of his own down the ground.
The Sri Lankan squeeze
Karunaratne's 21-run 14th over meant Afghanistan entered the final six overs needing only 68 more to reach 200; with nine wickets in hand, that was a real possibility. But Hasaranga gave away only six in the 15th over, and Gurbaz was caught at deep midwicket in the next while trying to take Asitha Fernando on. Theekshana's 17th and 19th overs went for a total of eight runs, and Ibrahim fell to Madushanka, for a 38-ball 40, in the 18th.
Najibullah Zadran did smack 17 in ten balls, but his dismissal, along with the quick wickets of Mohammad Nabi and Rashid in the last two overs, meant Afghanistan could add only 12 off the last 12 balls, and only 43 off the last 36.
Sri Lanka's openers put on 62
Nissanka struggled early against Fazalhaq Farooqi - their wrecker-in-chief in the previous outing - but Mendis was not afraid to take on Afghanistan's two main spinners. His region of choice was the square boundary on the leg side against both Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Rashid, as he creamed a slog sweep over deep midwicket off the former in the fourth over and hit two sixes off the latter in the sixth, which went for 17.
Only once before had Rashid conceded 17 or more runs in his opening over in T20Is, and with Sri Lanka at 57 for no loss after the powerplay, the base was set for the middle order to take the chase forward.
Mendis fell for a 19-ball 36 just after the powerplay ended, mistiming a pull off Naveen-ul-Haq to deep midwicket, which brought the spotlight on Nissanka. Nissanka looked like the anchor around whom the others would hit out, but he fell in the ninth over, for 35 off 28, when trying to chase a Mujeeb half-tracker.
The middle order steps up
With both openers out in quick succession and two new batters at the crease, Afghanistan had their tails up. Gunathilaka and Charith Asalanka were watchful initially, and that saw the required run rate creep up to 9.88 after 11 overs. But Gunathilaka then attacked Mohammad Nabi, and Sri Lanka took 14 and 11 from his two overs, the 12th and 14th of the innings respectively. That ensured the required run rate stayed under ten even though Shanaka and Asalanka fell attempting big hits.
However, Afghanistan's back broke when Rajapaksa hammered Naveen for 4, 4, 6 in an 18-run 16th over. The first boundary was hit past point, the next one was straighter through deep extra cover, and the best of the lot - the six - was hammered over the bowler's head. Rajapaksa was dropped off the final ball of that over, and with the Afghan shoulders drooping in unison as a reaction, it seemed like the match was already in Sri Lanka's pocket.
Rashid then got into a chat with Gunathilaka after the batter reverse-swept him for four, forcing Rajapaksa to intervene and keep matters under control. Even though Rashid won that battle with Gunathilaka's wicket for a 20-ball 33, Sri Lanka needed only 25 from 20 balls at that stage.
Hasaranga smacked three fours off the first six balls he faced, and even though Rajapaksa fell for a 14-ball 31 trying for a glory shot when the target was two runs away, celebrations began among the Sri Lanka fans well before the winning runs were hit.