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Feature

Anatomy of a miracle: how Sri Lanka won an Asia Cup they shouldn't have

They attacked their way out of dire situations, defended resolutely at the death, and found heroes where heroes should not be found

Danushka Gunathilaka stumbles a touch, and looks back at an off stump. It is still convulsing, as if it has 10,000 volts run through it. Haris Rauf tears away in his follow through, his team-mates racing after him. The stadium is a riot of fluttering Pakistan flags, and noise.
It is the most spectacular moment in an incandescent passage of fast bowling. Earlier, Naseem's Shah's vicious inswinger had also made an eruption out of the woodwork, but this ball to Gunathilaka, oh man - that's unplayable. Angled across, straightening in the air, seaming off the pitch. On his best day, Gunathilaka is not hitting that. No one is. It is a meteor. It has scorched through the atmosphere at 151kph.
Pakistan do this. They've been doing this. In limited-overs cricket, no modern side places so much of their pride on the altar of fast bowling, and when they've caught fire in finals, they've razed oppositions to the ground. Mohammad Amir and Hasan Ali were an inferno against India in the 2017 Champions Trophy. Against a much more decorated Sri Lanka top order than the one in this Asia Cup, Pakistan's quicks had been in searing form in the 2009 T20 World Cup title match.
Today, they've got Sri Lanka reeling at three down by the end of the powerplay, and in the first three overs of spin, Pakistan take two more wickets. Sri Lanka are 58 for 5, at a venue that favours chasing sides so severely, only three teams have batted first and won, in the 21 previous T20Is here.
After 8.5 overs, Sri Lanka are down to their last three recognised batters, two of whom are bowling allrounders. ESPNcricinfo's Win Probability tracker has their chances at 15.74%. That percentage does not account for emotion, but when you're in the maws of a great Pakistan bowling performance, it is as if the world closes in.
Sri Lanka had had a good run, turned heads, and sprung surprise. There's no shame in succumbing to bowling of this quality. Because surely they will not win from here.

****

Few sports force elite athletes to tackle situations they are unsuited to like cricket does. As debutant and No. 10 Asitha Fernando walks out to bat against Bangladesh, his team-mates are visibly worried. Sri Lanka have just lost their last recognised batter to a run out, and still need 13 off the last seven balls - a tricky proposition even if he had remained not out.
If you watch him take guard, Fernando does not look like he can bat - his movements too fidgety, his stance overeager, rather than poised. And his stats don't read like he can bat. He has hit 24 runs from five domestic T20 innings; his List A and First-Class averages are both below five.
But he faces up gamely, and does the thing that most players of his batting ability do. Tailenders such as Fernando are like the drunkest uncle on the dancefloor, forever busting out the same move, the result frequently unsightly. He clears his front leg almost before the bowler has bowled the ball, so urgently does he want to get it out of the way. A path now clear for his bat to come through, he whooshes the blade down.
"Good shot!" bellows Scott Styris on commentary. Well… yeah… so it turned out. Fernando is from the "swing it and wing it" school of batting. In fact, it is giving too much credit to call it a school - it's more like a dodgy online course that exists to steal your credit card info. He finds the boundary over extra cover that keeps Sri Lanka in the hunt.
Next over, he finds himself on strike again. And what does he do? Gets his front foot to the ball, and drills a glorious boundary down the ground, front elbow finishing high, sending batting coaches around the world into a swoon. No, that would be crazy. What Fernando actually does is throw that front leg out of the way with such single-minded commitment it is as if he would like to remove it from his body entirely and hurl it into the stands. He swings again, the ball happening to hit the middle of the bat, then happening to find a gap near deep midwicket.
Next ball, another almighty heave, for two this time. Because the bowler has delivered a no-ball, Sri Lanka achieve their target.
Sri Lanka were chasing 184, a big score for a side that had been bowled out for 105 three days previous. There were times in the chase when their win probability dropped into the low teens. And when a No. 10 who had only hit four boundaries in his entire T20 career arrived at the crease, that was it, the game is done, you thought.
Surely they will not win from here.

****

Against Afghanistan, Sri Lanka are in potentially tournament-defining trouble much earlier in the match. Rahmanullah Gurbaz is belting Sri Lanka's bowlers over the ropes with almost uncanny ease. Are there explosives in his bat?
Maheesh Theekshana, Sri Lanka's most reliable powerplay bowler, is getting taken apart in his first over. He gets clobbered over cow corner fourth ball. Then in the next one, he thinks he's had Gurbaz caught on the straight boundary, only Gunathilaka has stepped on the boundary skirting, so it is a six instead.
This does not temper Gurbaz, who pummels Fernando over the deep square leg boundary next over, hoicks Wanindu Hasaranga over deep midwicket soon after the powerplay ends, and later, flat-bats the ever-loving daylights out of a length Chamika Karunaratne delivery - the ball cannoning into the sightscreen.
After 14 overs, Afghanistan are 132 for 1. Commentators are confident a total of 200 is on the cards, at a ground (Sharjah) on which the highest successful chase is 172. Afghanistan had won both their group games, and mauled Sri Lanka inside 10.1 overs in the tournament opener, so as far as they, or most others, were concerned, Afghanistan were the ascendant side, and Sri Lanka a shadow of what used to be, who had merely snuck into the Super Fours on the back of some unlikely tail-end thrashing.
Afghanistan still have Najibullah Zadran, perhaps their most-destructive batter to come, with the hugely experienced Mohammad Nabi, and Rashid Khan there as well, plus Samiullah Shinwari and Karim Janat. They bat deep. Surely Sri Lanka cannot contain them from here.
And yet, Fernando gets Gurbaz caught in the outfield, Theekshana bowls a couple of cheap death overs, Dilshan Madushanka gets the other set batter out, and in the last 36 balls of this innings, which Afghanistan were beautifully-placed to plunder, they make just 43, losing five wickets.
So good had their first 14 overs been, though, they have still set Sri Lanka a target that has never been achieved on this ground before. No Sri Lanka batter produces an innings in the league of Gurbaz. But Pathum Nissanka hits a solid 35 off 28, and Kusal Mendis 36 off 19 - the pair putting on 62 together in 6.3 overs.
Gunathilaka, out of form lately, hits two sixes off Nabi - one of the canniest spinners in the game - and gets himself to 33 off 20. Still, Sri Lanka end up needing 49 off the last 30 balls, and Bhanuka Rajapaksa smokes 31 off 14. In the end, they complete a record chase with some ease - five balls to spare.
Over in Dubai, the Asian rivalry of legend is unfolding - India taking the first match, Pakistan the second. Sri Lanka have not faced either yet.

****

In 25 previous T20Is against India, Sri Lanka have lost 17. In the three matches they had played earlier this year, India monstered Sri Lanka in the first match, winning by 62 runs. The same could be said of the two matches to follow. Forget being on the same level as India. They may as well have been playing different sports.
In this tournament, India were without their best fast bowler in Jasprit Bumrah, but they had the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who off the top of the head has played - and you should check this - roughly a million T20s, as well as Arshdeep Singh, who had been excellent with the ball in the two big games against Pakistan.
R Aswhin, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya, Rishabh Pant, Suryakumar Yadav, KL Rahul. There are stars here to fit out a whole galaxy. Sri Lanka have Hasaranga, plus some other guys. Guys like Dilshan Madushanka, playing his third T20I ever, having not played hard-ball cricket until very late in his teens. Or like Pathum Nissanka, who has never played a franchise T20 tournament bigger than the serially-postponed Lanka Premier League. He's maybe the brightest young batting talent in Sri Lanka and after 55 T20 innings has a strike rate… in the 110s? Wait, are you serious? Have you seen the bonkers Indian batters that haven't even made this squad? Ishan Kishan? Sanju Samson? Rahul Tewatia?
But wait, there's Madushanka, inswinging a yorker into Kohli's stumps, uprooting two of them at once, screaming into a multi-teammate bearhug. Much later, Nissanka is running down the track to punch Bhuvneshwar down the ground, lofting Pandya over the long-on boundary, crashing Yuzvendra Chahal through the covers, then slamming him over deep square leg.
At the other end, Kusal Mendis is playing an even better innings, as Sri Lanka's openers put on 97 together, providing an outstanding platform from which they can chase down 174. Such is India's quality, that they still make a game out of this, allowing Sri Lanka only to scramble to the finish with one ball to spare, even after Dasun Shanaka and Rajapaksa have struck big blows.
There were times in this chase when the win probability got below 25%, but of all Sri Lanka's pressure matches in the Asia Cup, this is the one in which they seemed most in control. Which is a strange thing to say, given the resources India command, the depth at their disposal, and the obscenely one-sided nature of this rivalry.

****

In the final, five down, abject defeat the likeliest outcome, Pakistan's seamers white-hot, their spinners backing them up, Sri Lanka continue to attack. No one wins big finals making 120 or 135, as Sri Lanka had themselves found out in that 2009 T20 World Cup final. To have a chance, at a venue as loaded against you as Dubai, you've got to get yourself on the far side of 150.
Former Sri Lanka coach Mickey Arthur had once described Hasaranga as a DGAF player. He's out there, unrepentantly, to win. Despite not having been at his best with the bat this year, he produces a DGAF innings. He backs away and throws his bat repeatedly, hitting Shadab Khan behind square on the offside to get his first two fours, before crashing Mohammad Hasnain through extra cover, then belting him over deep third two balls later, for a six.
He takes on Haris Rauf too, thumping him back over his head, flaying him through backward point. He tries to hit a third successive four and gets out, and this is where Rajapaksa takes over. Having initially batted in Hasaranga's slipstream, dabbing boundaries past short third man to begin with, Rajapaksa brings out his power game.
To look at him, Rajapaksa is not a power hitter. He does not have a lot of height, and as such, lacks the long levers. He does not seem to have the taut muscle of an Eoin Morgan, Brendon McCullum, or a Kusal Perera either, having infamously failed a number of skin-fold fitness tests. Let us be kind and say that of the Sri Lanka greats, he resembles Rangana Herath more than anyone.
What he has are obscenely powerful wrists. After Hasaranga gets out, the wrists begin to break through the course of his batswing, generating outrageous bat-speed. This is never more apparent than when he swats a Nassem ball off middle stump high over deep backward square leg, the bat coming down like whiplash.
He gets dropped twice, but again this is the wrists at work. He gets the timing wrong, but generated so much power, the ball went high into the night, to make those catches difficult. His last shot, a leg-cleared (Asitha Fernando style) whipped six over extra cover - one of the hardest strokes to pull off in the game, propelled Sri Lanka to 170.
But 171 is eminently gettable in Dubai, and it is in the field where Sri Lanka's sublime Asia Cup campaign reaches its crescendo. The first wicket is a small wonder. Not because of the ball Pramod Madushanka bowled - that is a legside length ball deserved the disdain that Babar Azam treated it with, flicking it pretty much off the middle of the bat into the legside, the ball traveling rapidly.
It's a wonder only because of Madushanka's astounding overhead catch, plucking the ball as if conjuring it from thin air. Earlier, Madushanka had bowled five illegal deliveries to start out the match, but recovered through the rest of the over, and now had helped remove Pakistan's captain.
Perhaps more importantly, he had set the tone for Sri Lanka's fielding, and soon after, was a beneficiary of the standard he'd set. Iftikhar Ahmed drove powerfully down the ground, third ball of the sixth over, which Madushanka was bowling. Theekshana zoomed across, stuck his right arm out, and saved a certain four.
Through the rest of the evening, Sri Lanka's fielding was electric, almost without exception. Ashen Bandara (the sub fielder), racing around the legside boundary to cut two runs off, even when the bowler deserved to go for four. Gunathilaka was throwing himself full-tilt at a ball scorching a path down the ground, saving two. Hasaranga ranging the square boundary in fast forward.
It is not kosher to call their fielding "hungry" when back home, many Sri Lankans are skipping meals as an economic crisis tears through homes. Better to say they willed themselves to balls they should not have got to, every second of this fielding effort loaded with desperation. In their relentlessness, Sri Lanka turned the most prosaic of cricket's three disciplines into a spectacle every bit as high octane as Pakistan's fast bowling in the early overs. Pakistan were in the maws of a great Sri Lankan fielding performance, their horizons closing in.
They rounded the boundary at high speed to get under catches, threw themselves around the infield to prevent singles, and flat out refused to let Pakistan batters score runs that perhaps the batters felt they deserved.
But this has been Sri Lanka's cricket throughout most of the Asia Cup. They have attacked their way out of dire situations, defended resolutely at the death, found heroes where heroes should not be found, plotted paths around better-drilled, highly-decorated teams.
Sri Lanka have just not allowed themselves to be beaten - sometimes with astonishing bravery and enterprise, like cornered honeybadgers fighting off a pride of lions. Though at other times, they have been like petulant toddlers throwing a tantrum at the supermarket, plain refusing to submit to rationale.
They've dug in heels, pushed back, defied odds and all manner of probability trackers, and discovered new levels to their game.
Surely, they shouldn't have won it. But they did.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf