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Jaffna Stallions 174 for 5 (Avishka 84, Bhanuka 40, Asitha 2-30) beat Galle Gladiators 170 for 6 (Gunathilaka 56, Walton 31, Hasaranga 2-29) by five wickets
How the game played out
An all-round display from Wanindu Hasaranga capped off yet another fine display by the Jaffna Stallions, as they won their fourth game on the trot, and subjected the Galle Gladiators to a fourth straight defeat, with an ultimately comfortable five-wicket win.
Despite a 44-ball 56 from Danushka Gunathilaka and cameos from Ahsan Ali, Azam Khan and Chadwick Walton, the Gladiators' batting line-up exhibited familiar failings as they once more faltered in crucial periods of the game. The Stallions, in contrast, showcased their clutch mentality, on numerous occasions, reining in the Gladiators just as they would have been hoping to do some real damage.
The chief culprit as far as the Gladiators were concerned would be Hasaranga, who was not only responsible for breaking a threatening 67-run opening stand between Ali and Gunathilaka - completing a extremely tough return catch - but returned later to dismiss Gunathilaka in the 15th over, just as he would have been looking to launch a late assault.
That wicket completely snuffed the momentum from the Gladiators' innings, though Walton's 14-ball 31 did briefly threaten to reignite it - taking them from 127 for 4 at the end of the 16th over to 152 midway through the 17th. However, after Walton nicked one through to the keeper, the Gladiators just could not recover, taking just 17 runs off the final three overs to limp to a sub-par 170 for 6.
In their chase, the Stallions were in control pretty much from the get-go - largely thanks to a mature innings from Avishka Fernando. After Tom Moores fell with the score on 26, Fernando and Minod Bhanuka put on 99 for the second wicket.
With less than 50 runs to get, the Gladiators would make a game of it dismissing Thisara Perera, Avishka, and finally Shoaib Malik (in the final over), but Wanindu would prove to be the bane of the Gladiators one final time - his seven-ball 17, inclusive of four boundaries, ensuring there would be no late drama.
Stars of the day
While Thisara has rightfully hogged the spotlight over the course of the Stallions' unbeaten run, Wanindu has arguably been as, if not more, critical to his side's success. Quietly going about his business with bat, ball, and in the field, Wanindu once again showed what an invaluable asset he his. His control and variations were a constant thorn in the side of the Gladiators on his way to figures of 2 for 29, before his late cameo extinguished any faint hopes the Gladiators might have had of stealing a win.
There was something rather ominous about the way Avishka went about his innings; the period of play from the 11th to the 13th over highlighted this perfectly. At the end of the 10th over he was on 35 off 31 deliveries, but realising the scoring rate needed picking up, he took Dhananjaya Lakshan for a six and four. The next over was a tight one from Lakshan Sandakan, but Avishka didn't panic, calmly turning over the strike - even playing out a dot ball. It was as if he knew he could up the rate whenever he so chose. Three consecutive sixes in the arc between long-on and midwicket later, these suspicions were confirmed. At 22, this new-found assurance bodes well for the Stallions and Sri Lankan cricket in general.
It's unusual that an over in which 26 runs were plundered could be a positive for the bowler, but that Usman Shinwari ended the 31-run cameo from Chadwick Walton - 24 of which came in this over - before he could do any more damage, was crucial in limiting the Gladiators' late charge. Following Walton's wicket, just 18 runs were conceded by the Stallions over the next three overs - any more and it could have been a much trickier chase.
The big miss
In the 18th over of the chase, Avishka flat-batted one hard to long-off. The man in the deep, Shehan Jayasuriya, however, chose to peddle back and stop the boundary instead of coming in for the catch. To compound matters, a misfield would lead to a boundary as well. Two balls later, Avishka would nick one through to the keeper. The umpire had already raised his finger before realising Azam had dropped a sitter behind the stumps. Fortunately for the Gladiators, Avishka would give another opportunity off the final ball of the over, skying a catch to Jayasuriya.
Where the teams stand
The Stallions have firmly installed themselves as the team to beat - four wins in four, bowlers performing, batsmen clicking, what more could you ask for? It would take an astounding drop-off in form for them not to make the semi-finals. As for the Gladiators, they don't really have much margin for error. Though the format of the tournament - where the top four teams go through as opposed to a play-off system - means they can sneak through with a couple of wins, provided other results also go their way.