Sri Lanka's gamble of an all-pace attack earns high rewards

Lasith Malinga sends back Dawlat Zadran Getty Images

Two yorkers from Lasith Malinga crashed into the stumps and had zing bails light up the growing gloom around the Cardiff Wales Stadium and Afghan hearts, but by then Sri Lanka were as good as home. It was an oxygen-depleted win, but a win all the same in their second game of the 2019 World Cup.

Victory - via DLS method - against the event's sweetheart qualifiers doesn't prove anything except give Sri Lanka valuable points and a breather - and certainly for Malinga himself, who collected his first win after 21 ODI defeats and one no-result since July 6, 2017.

Sri Lanka's last ODI win against a frontline team outside of Asia was almost two years ago, against India at the Champions Trophy. In between then and now, purgatory, doubt, batting collapses (not that those have gone away) and one defeat after another have followed.

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For now, though, says coach Chandika Hathurusingha, the win gives the team the booster shot they needed of confidence. "We really needed a win," he said. "We haven't got much success lately… We need this win badly."

The Sri Lankans were to make the single change that may be what is needed to change their narrative. Even if that meant putting all their eggs in the one basket that Cardiff offered them - picking five seamers in conditions with clouds overhead that made the swinging ball sing. It was this fifth horseman that was to prevent their apocalypse.

Nuwan Pradeep, hipster haircut, gunslinger walk, slinger action, biting pace, mean inswing and left out on the weekend, turned up and did his job during the working week and produced his career-best ODI figures of 4 for 31 that made victory possible. Once it was done, the Lankans gathered together in a huddle of relief, bunting Player-of-the-Match Pradeep on his head over and over.

Captain Dimuth Karunaratne's grin was visible from sizeable distance; never mind the fates and losing the toss again, his team had climbed out of the hole they had dug for themselves after recording the highest Powerplay total of the competiton and then imploding (7-36 in 11 overs.)

Twenty runs across the last two wickets did take Lanka past 200 but coach Hathurusingha said while the score had never seemed enough, they had expected the seamers to "bowl well on the wicket, hit the deck hard and hit the seam." The innings break, he said, had not featured a pep talk but a talking-to to the team, "I tell them what has to be done. That they have to come and perform."

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It is what the Lankan bowlers did; the 15 wides at the end of the innings will cost them heavily elsewhere, but the extravagance of the Afghan batsmen allowed them to get away with it. The key was to just to pitch the ball up or back of a length, depending on who disliked what, hit the pitch hard when required to create dot-ball pressure and extract the error. Or as Thisara Perera put it, "keep our line and length and don't panic." Isuru Udana and Pradeep, the least experienced of the five, were particularly efficient in tandem, Pradeep sending home the two most dangerous of the Afghan batsmen on the day - opener Hazratullah Zazai and the captain Gulbadin Naib, whose 61-run partnership with Najibullah Zadran kept Afghanistan afloat.

Hathurusingha said Pradeep had "single-handedly" kept Sri Lanka in the game. In conditions like Cardiff where the ball swings and often climbs, he found himself in his element and there was no better day to put it out on display. Left-arm paceman Udana said of Pradeep, "He was the main man today he was the man who changed the game…" Pradeep had never played with a cricket ball until the age of 20, was discovered through a soft-ball competition and has had a career for Sri Lanka restricted by a series of injuries. His last ODI was against New Zealand in January, missing out on the March tour of New Zealand due to an injury.

The collective experience of the senior seamers - Malinga, Lakmal and Perera have played between them 455 ODIs - was enough to pass on their wisdom to the younger two. Udana, playing only his seventh ODI, used his experience from the Bangladesh and Afghan premier T20 leagues to offer insights into the Afghan batsmen shared around the squad. Malinga's last two wickets with his signature yorkers did end the game but it was Pradeep that had virtually dragged it out of Afghanistan's reach and imagination.

Coach Hathurusingha hoped this game was going to change Lankan ODI fortunes especially at the event where it is most urgent and most under notice. When asked about Malinga's tongue-lashing and whether he agreed with it, he said: "When you play for your country there is a lot of pride at stake. They all hurting. I'm sure about that. They really, really want to perform well for the country. What Lasith said, whatever he said is what he believes, and I think all the players get a lot of confidence after this win for sure."

Now, if only the batsmen could follow.