The World Cup has had its first thriller. And guess what? It involved a Full Member against an Associate. Afghanistan glimpsed the greatest victory of their short international history in Dunedin before Sri Lanka dragged themselves over the line to win by four wickets with 10 balls to spare – and the finish was tenser than that suggests.
When Mahela Jayawardene departed, two balls after completing his 19th ODI hundred, Sri Lanka still needed 55 off 52 balls with the allrounders, Jeevan Mendis and the recalled Thisara Perera together. Afghanistan sensed glory, but Perera rode his luck, swinging the bat hard and often, clubbing his way to 47 off 26 balls as 22 runs came off the 46th and 47th overs.
Of all the moments when Jayawardene thought he would have to dig deep and help his side out of trouble during his final World Cup, Sri Lanka’s second match of the tournament would probably not have featured highly.
But how they needed him. Afghanistan’s pace bowlers threatened one of the great upsets when Sri Lanka faltered on 51 for 4 chasing 233. Steadily, though, Jayawardene brought some composure to the chase, having dropped down a place to No. 5, alongside Angelo Mathews in a fifth-wicket stand of 126.
However, the captain could have been run out twice before reaching double figures. He eventually fell in that manner to create Sri Lanka’s second unsteady moment. “It’s a relief,” Jayawardene said as he collected the Man-of-the-Match award.
The start of Sri Lanka’s chase was filled with panic and uncertainty brought on by the excellence of Afghanistan’s three frontline quicks. The recalled Dawlat Zadran struck with the first ball of the innings, trapping Lahiru Thirimanne lbw, and there was almost a second wicket to end the opening over when Kumar Sangakkara chanced a sharp single to the leg side.
Two balls later, however, Sri Lanka were two down when Tillakaratne Dilshan sparred at a short-of-a-length delivery from the fiery Shapoor Zadran prompting celebrations from the bowler that ended nearer to fine leg than the pitch.
There was a sense of chaos to Sri Lanka’s innings, typified when Najibullah Zadran missed another run-out chance as Sangakkara hurried down the pitch. There was so much time for Najibullah that he may have been able to run all the way to the stumps, or at least dive the final part, but his under-arm flick was wide much to the anguish of those around him.
But this was not to be Sangakkara’s day. Hamid Hassan, touching 90mph, produced a wonderful delivery which swung back from outside off to leave Sri Lanka in a mess at 18 for 3. Hamid continued to cause problems, especially for the left-handed Dimuth Karunaratne who he beat twice in consecutive deliveries from round the wicket, before finally drawing an edge that was taken, on the second grab, at slip.
The running remained an issue and Mathews could have gone without scoring. With the allrounders to come, Afghanistan were one wicket away from breaking the back of Sri Lanka’s order but that moment proved elusive despite the efforts of Hamid and Shapoor, the latter also snapping Jayawardene’s bat in two. They were not helped when injury forced Mirwais Ashraf off one ball into his fifth over although he did later return.
Jayawardene’s fifty came just after the mid-point of the chase and it was from there that life became a little more comfortable for Sri Lanka – at least for a time. He took advantage of some loose deliveries from legspinner Samiullah Shenwari, but it was largely due to deft placement by him and Mathews that ensured the required rate was kept under six until the pair were parted.
Mathews didn’t hit a boundary until his 67th delivery, but when Jayawardene struck the first six of the innings during the batting Powerplay, it appeared Sri Lanka had weathered the storm. Not quite. Their nerves would be tested again.
Andy Moles, Afghanistan’s coach, had said the world “had not seen them play” after their performance against Bangladesh. This was a day when many would have sat up and taken notice. The innings was given substance by a third-wicket stand of 88 between Asghar Stanikzai and Shenwari and at 128 for 2 in the 28th over, a total of 250-plus was certainly within reach. But after Stanikzai’s run-a-ball half-century ended, no one was able to take up the mantle and the last eight wickets fell for 104.
Although Stanikzai’s larruped a six over midwicket – which was caught one-handed in the crowd – the partnership between him and Shenwari was encouragingly selective. There was less block-to-bash and a little more working the field, although the bad balls – of which Perera delivered plenty in his first spell of the tournament – were effectively dealt with.
Shenwari had one lucky moment, on 25, when he survived a DRS review for lbw by the narrowest of margins. The ball was smashing into leg stump, but it was a hair’s breadth away from 50% of the ball – one of the prime examples for the argument that a team should not lose a review under such tight circumstances; neither was it a good on-field decision.
When the spinners operated in tandem, Stanikzai shunned his helmet then brought up his fifty off 50 balls with a thumping straight drive against Herath only to give his wicket away when he lofted the same bowler down to long on. Shenwari had been playing the anchor role. Having used up 69 deliveries, plus with signs of Mohammad Nabi finding his range, he needed to hold his nerve. Instead, he tried to break free and drove a catch to mid-off.
Nabi had clouted consecutive balls for four and six against Perera but he fell four deliveries into the Powerplay when he swiped across the line at Malinga. They were suffocated in the fielding restrictions which brought 10 for 2 against Lasith Malinga and Suranga Lakmal. Of the 10, just five came off the bat in the five overs.Still, it was a far from convincing display by Sri Lanka with the ball – as they conceded 16 wides – or in the field where they continued to look off the pace. It almost cost them dearly.