Clinical Sri Lanka canters to Asia Cup title

Less than a fortnight ago, the Asia Cup got underway with Lahiru Thirimanne hitting a century and Lasith Malinga taking a five-wicket haul in a Sri Lankan win over Pakistan. On Saturday (March 8), the tournament ended with a nice touch of symmetry as the same actors reprised their roles with the same result.

Malinga’s 5 for 56 ensured Pakistan was kept to a manageable total, after which Thirimanne stroked 101 in 108 balls to lead his side’s charge towards its fifth Asia Cup title – tying for the record of most trophies in the tournament with India. It also meant Sri Lanka maintained its spotless record in the tournament as well as in Bangladesh since late January, completing a five-wicket win in just 46.2 overs with clinical domination.

Fawad Alam’s century had headlined Pakistan’s 260 for 5 at Sher-e-Bangla stadium, but Sri Lanka’s response was in keeping with how its stay in in Bangladesh had gone: finding the right men for the occasion, efficiently cutting down on its own mistakes and maximising on its opponents’, and emerging winners at the end. Fittingly, Angelo Mathews, the captain, struck the winning runs, flicking Mohammad Talha to square leg.

The title-run marked a nice turnaround from the previous edition in 2012, when Sri Lanka stumbled from one defeat to the next before crashing out winless.

Thirimanne was Sri Lanka’s man for the chase and he received excellent support from Mahela Jayawardene, who had endured a poor tournament till that point. Jayawardene found himself warming to the big stage once again with a 75 (93 balls) of his own during a 156-run stand for the third wicket.

In Sri Lanka’s chase, Saeed Ajmal bowled with loop, guile, turn and the highest craft that could be expected from a spinner, taking 3 for 26 in what was virtually a one-man bowling resistance. Ajmal’s double strike in the 11th over of the chase, accounting for a rapid Kusal Perera for 42 and Kumar Sangakkara for a first-ball duck, had breathed life into the contest, and left Sri Lanka 56 for 2 after a quick start. But that was the last time Pakistan was in it.

Ajmal did strike in his final over, the 45th of the innings, castling Thirimanne with a beauty, but by then only 14 were required from 35 balls.

During the stand that mattered, Thirimanne and Jayawardene made good use of a generous helping of hit-me balls, but in spite of the deliveries bowled on the legs and those that gave the batsmen either enough time or room or both, their skill and character in what could have been a challenging chase was vastly impressive.

Thirimanne was superb square of the wicket on either side, flicking and cutting with elegance. He had played second fiddle in the opening stand with Kusal, but had looked far more assured, with nary a wrong shot. The only bowler who had to be negotiated very carefully was Ajmal, and Thirimanne proved equal to the task. Of the others, he was alert enough to keep out the occasional good delivery while capitalising when lines went astray. The one time he erred, he was let off, with Umar Akmal slow to react to a thick edge off Shahid Afridi when the batsman was on 36 in the 20th over, with the team score just past 100.

At the other end, Jayawardene was no different. In spite of coming in on the back of low scores, Jayawardene didn’t hang about spending too long on getting his eye in. Mathews had stressed on how Jayawardene was a “big-match player” and his run of low scores weren’t a worry, and Jayawardene set out to prove his captain right. He brought up a first fifty in 13 innings, finessing a cut to the point boundary off Umar Gul. Off the next ball, he was put down in the deep by a diving Mohammad Hafeez but, by then, with Sri Lanka 184 for 2 and needing 77 off 101 balls, the chase was motoring along.

Jayawardene was out to a cross-batted shot that was out of character, but at 212 for 3 in 37.2 overs, the fielding side’s shoulders were already beginning to droop, and not even the couple of wickets they got towards the end could alter the result.

There was no suggestion of a droop at the innings break though, when Alam’s unbeaten 114 (134 balls) had held the innings together. Alam and Misbah-ul-Haq joined forces at a perilous 18 for 3 in the fifth over, and resurrected the innings from there.

The start was down to Malinga striking once in each of his first three overs, taking out Sharjeel Khan, Ahmed Shehzad and Hafeez. He would come back to snare Misbah and break a 122-run stand, and finish with the wicket of Umar in the final over to complete a second five-for in the tournament.

After Malinga’s initial strikes, Misbah and Alam rebuilt carefully, calibrating their acceleration for later after first stabilising the innings. The fourth-wicket stand was well past a hundred when Malinga was brought back in the 37th over, and he made an immediate breakthrough, Misbah holing out to long-on. The Pakistan captain was disappointed with himself, feeling perhaps rightly that his wicket hadn’t been earned, but could only walk back for 65 off 98, leaving his side 140 for 4.

It was the perfect time for Umar to walk in, and he didn’t hang about. He kept busy with the singles and occasional boundaries, and exploded in the final few overs, with Alam joining in. On 94, Alam flicked a full ball on the leg stump over midwicket to become the first left-hand middle-order batsman to hit a century for Pakistan in ODIs, much to his and Umar’s delight.

Umar himself seemed more pleased than Alam at the achievement, adding to the revelry of a crowd that came out in large numbers. Umar’s 59 off 42 was the spunkiest innings among the Pakistan batsmen, full of superbly timed shots.

The duo put on 115 in just 13 overs before Umar fell to Malinga, providing exhilarating entertainment in the death overs, as 49 came off the final four.

The finish was good, but against a side that didn’t lose control of the chase from the start, it eventually turned out to be too little, too late.