Asia Cup: Charith Asalanka is Lanka’s hero as wait for India-Pakistan final continues

It has been 39 years since the first edition of the Asia Cup was played in Sharjah. Yet, the wait for an India vs Pakistan final will extend for two more years as Sri Lanka prevailed in a stunning fashion in a game that began on Thursday and extended into the early hours of Friday.

Mid-way through their innings, it looked all grim for Pakistan, yet through Mohammad Rizwan and Iftikhar Ahmed they launched a stunning counter-attack before the hosts came up with one of their own to set up a final with India for the ninth time on Sunday with a thrilling, last-ball two-wicket win.

The road to the final was by no means a comfortable one for Sri Lanka. From time to time as Pakistan kept landing counter- punches, the hosts looked down and out, only for the jam-packed Khettarama to keep waking them. This would go down as an Asia Cup classic, where it was impossible to spot a winner till the final delivery was bowled.

When Sri Lanka reduced Pakistan to 130/5 before the second rain break, the hosts looked on course for a comfortable win. However, with the slow conditions changing post showers, it set up an exciting clash. When Rizwan and Ahmed took Pakistan to 252/7 in 42 overs, scoring 102 runs in the last 10 overs, they appeared to have the game in bag.

But Sri Lanka’s batting line-up was not going to give up that easily and when Kusal Mendis and Sadeera Samarawickrama stitched a 100-run stand for the third wicket, Pakistan appeared to run out of gas. But Ahmed once again brought them back, this time with his off-spinners, as his three wickets kept it tight before Shaheen Shah Afridi nearly put Pakistan in the final with two wickets in the 41st over.

However, Charith Asalanka, with some luck and common sense, helped Sri Lanka over the line as the Khettarama erupted as one. Pakistan, the favourites to win the title, are on their way back home for a short break before they land on Indian shores on September 25 for the World Cup.

Having experienced that the track had changed characteristics in the harshest way possible, chasing a tall target of 252 (DLS) in 42 overs, Sri Lanka were up to the challenge. They started off in blazing style before Mendis consolidated with an eye-catching innings. It was only after the pitch began to get slower under the lights that Pakistan found their way back as Sri Lanka suddenly struggled to force the play. From there on, it became a cat-and-mouse game before Asalanka turned into a hero.

Earlier, Rizwan and Ahmed, who were dubbed villains for batting slowly when chasing a modest target against Sri Lanka in last year’s final, nearly became heroes on the night. Rizwan scored 86 off 73 balls and Ahmed reeled off 47 off 40 to power Pakistan to a competitive score.

Before their counterpunch came rain. After a two-hour-15- minute delayed start because of a wet outfield followed by heavy rain, which reduced the contest to a 45-overs-a-side game, Pakistan’s innings was going nowhere at 130/5 when the second rain break arrived.

Just like it had panned out during their match against India, Sri Lanka were beginning to make inroads in the middle overs with their attack making the most of the two-paced nature of the pitch, overcoming a good start from Pakistan’s top order.

Severely hit by injuries and bad form, Pakistan had made four changes to their eleven, yet nothing seemed to work for them before the skies opened up around 7.30 pm.

Tide turns

The second rain break, though, couldn’t have come at a better time for Pakistan. The surface at Khettarama has shown a tendency to change when it is placed under covers, as the moisture sets in after a shower. It no longer retains the characteristics of a two-paced pitch, where every other ball stops at the batsmen.

They have found it easier to bat after a spell of rain, as the pitch eases out and the drives that were so hard to time only a while ago, speed off the bat. On Tuesday against India, Sri Lanka had benefitted from a similar brief spell of rain and if not for the early blows they suffered, the hosts could have extended their winning streak to 14.

On Thursday, in what was a virtual semifinal, Pakistan benefited from it too. Rizwan and Ahmed are two batsmen who divide opinions back home. They are integral part of their limited-overs set-up, though are not the most flamboyant types. Both love to take the game deep rather than go hammer and tongs. Their limitations when it comes to playing aggressive shots and forcing the pace mean their range is restricted to only a few pockets in the field. In an era in which most batsmen explore the 360 degrees, these two are a throwback to the 90s.

With the rain break further reducing the contest to 42 overs a side, they had only 14 overs to rebuild and take the team to safety. Their limitations in T20s became their lifeline in the evening, as they were able to take the game deep by playing to their strengths. With the pitch easing out, they launched a stunning counterattack, which propelled Pakistan to score 102 runs off the last 10 overs, powering them to 252/7, a total that looked beyond their reach at one stage. After the restart, they took two overs to gauge the pitch and from thereon, runs flowed.

For a batsman who opens in T20s, Rizwan has limitations, especially when it comes to scoring on the leg-side. He is one of the rare sub-continental batsmen who don’t use the wrists much, which means unless the bowler drifts a lot towards the leg-side or offers width on the off-side, the V behind the wicket is usually a dry zone. On Thursday, he didn’t have to worry about it, as Sri Lanka fed him in areas where he wanted them as he picked 46 off his 86 runs between square-leg and mid-wicket, including two fours and sixes apiece.

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Iftikhar is the polar opposite of Rizwan. With strong shoulders, he prefers playing his shots to the leg-side, where the slog over mid-wicket and mid-on remains his go-to option. Like Rizwan, he doesn’t use the space behind the wicket. At most times, he comes across as a batsman who is premeditating shots and prefers to go to the off-side only when there is considerable width.

Such contrasting batsmen at both ends meant Sri Lanka had to be precise with their plans. However, their inexperience showed up, as apart from erring in line and gifting boundary balls, they hardly seemed to have a Plan B.

The big over Pakistan needed to change the momentum arrived in the 33rd bowled by Pramod Madushan, who leaked 18 runs. From there on, they got 10, 6, 8, 5, 12, 12, 14, 7 and 10 as Rizwan and Iftikhar provided the much-needed impetus.

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