Sri Lanka 179 for 6 (Mendis 36, Nissanka 35, Mujeeb 2-30) beat Afghanistan 175 for 6 (Gurbaz 84, Ibrahim Zadran 40, Madushanka 2-37) by 4 wickets
Young Maheesh Theekshana conceded just eight runs when given two overs at the death, Hasaranga went for only 23 in his four overs, and left-arm seamer Danushka Madushanka took 2 for 37. Overall, it was the highest-successful T20I chase in Sharjah, and more importantly, gave Sri Lanka two points on the Super 4 points table.
For Afghanistan, it was their first-ever T20I loss after posting a 170+ total. They will now have to recuperate quickly from it, otherwise a slide in the tournament is a realistic possibility with India and Pakistan to follow. Rashid Khan went for plenty, no other batter apart from Gurbaz looked fluent, and the 2022 Asia Cup suddenly feels very wide open.
The Gurbaz show
It was a reprieve for Gurbaz early that kickstarted the Afghanistan innings’ lift off. After hitting his first six off the day in the third over, Gurbaz tried to repeat the same off Theekshana, but ended up hitting it to long off where Gunathilaka got under it. But the umpires stalled the revelry, because the fielder had stepped on the boundary skirting.
Gurbaz’s eight off five balls would soon become 50 in 22 deliveries as he continued aggressively by finding boundaries in the ‘V’, preferring the region between long on and deep midwicket more. With Hazratullah Zazai struggling to a 16-ball 13 – before being bowled by Madushanka – and Ibrahim Zadran, the No. 3, slow off the blocks, it was Gurbaz’s attacking shots that brought up the team fifty in 6.1 overs.
The wicket was two-paced, the deck offered the occasional low bounce, but Gurbaz rallied on to take Afghanistan to 83 for 1 after ten overs. At the halfway mark, ESPNcricinfo’s Forecaster had Afghanistan reaching 175, but four overs of no boundaries between overs 8 to 12 brought Sri Lanka back into the game. However, Gurbaz dragged the momentum back in Afghanistan’s favour by finding sixes off Dasun Shanaka and Chamika Karunaratne in back-to-back overs, and with Ibrahim joining in on the action with a few lusty blows of his own down the ground.
The Sri Lankan squeeze
Karunaratne’s 21-run 14th over meant Afghanistan entered the final six overs needing only 68 more to breach 200, and with nine wickets in hand, that was a real possibility. But the 15th from Hasaranga was tidy, and Gurbaz was caught at deep midwicket on 84 (off 45 balls) while trying to take Asitha Fernando on in the 16th. Theekshana’s 17th and 19th overs went for a total of eight runs, and Ibrahim fell early in the 18th over from Madushanka following a 38-ball 40.
Najibullah Zadran came in and did smack 17 in 10 balls, but his dismissal, along with the quick wickets of Mohammad Nabi and Rashid in the last two overs meant Afghanistan could add only 12 off the last 12 balls, only 44 off the last 36 deliveries, and eventually finished on the halfway stage forecasted score of 175.
Sri Lanka’s openers put on 62
Nissanka struggled early against Fazalhaq Farooqi – their wrecker-in-chief in their previous outing – but Mendis was not afraid to take on Afghanistan’s two big spinners.
Mendis’ region of choice was the square boundary on the leg side off both Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Rashid, creaming a slog sweep over deep midwicket off the former in the third over and taking the latter for a 17-run first over that included two further sixes.
Only once before had Rashid conceded 17 or more runs in his opening over in T20Is, and with Sri Lanka at 57 for no loss after the powerplay, the onus was on the openers to set the base for their hard-hitting middle order to take the chase along.
However, Mendis fell for a 19-ball 36 just after the powerplay ended, mistiming a pull off Naveen-ul-Haq to deep midwicket, which brought the spotlight on Nissanka, who was otherwise spending more time at the non-striker’s. Nissanka looked like he’d be the anchor around whom the others would hit, but he too fell for 35 in the ninth over while trying to chase a Mujeeb half-tracker.
The middle order steps up
With both openers out in quick succession and two new batters in the crease, Afghanistan had their tails up. Gunathilaka and Charith Asalanka were watchful in their opening few overs and that saw the required run-rate creep up to 9.88 after 11 overs. However, once offspinner Nabi returned, Gunathilaka hit him for two six and four for a 14-run 12th over and an 11-run 14th over. That ensured the required run-rate stayed under 10 even though Shanaka and Asalanka fell trying to look for big hits.
However, Afghanistan’s back broke when new batter Rajapaksa hammered Naveen for 4, 4, 6 in an 18-run 16th over. The first boundary was hit past point, the next one was straighter through deep extra cover and the best of the lot – the six – was hammered over the bowler’s head.
Rajapaksa was then dropped off the final ball of that Naveen over, and with the Afghan shoulders dropping in unison as a reaction, it seemed like the match result was already in Sri Lanka’s head, if only in the head.
Rashid then got into a chat after Gunathilaka struck him for a reverse sweep four, forcing Rajapaksa to intervene and keep matters under control. Even though Rashid won that battle with Gunathilaka’s wicket for a 20-ball 33, the target was almost run-a-ball away.
Hasaranga came in and smacked four fours in his first seven balls to eventually finish on an unbeaten nine-ball 16, and even though Rajapaksa fell for a 14-ball 31 trying to look for a glory shot when the target was two runs away, celebrations began among the Sri Lanka fans well before the winning runs were finally hit.
Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @sreshthx