Dambulla: To borrow a 1960s euphemism used for a quirky movie, "If it is Wednesday it must be Sri Lanka" could also be the theme of India’s opening Asia Cup game here at Rangiri Stadium.
With six of the India squad suffering from jet leg and possibly, time zone conflict, the coach, Gary Kirsten suggested it was time to concentrate on the longer ODI format of the game and emphasised more on the strategy for the side for the event than the two T20s that delayed his own and other members of the side’s departure from Harare until Sunday night.
The former left-hand opening batsman was quick to point out the value of playing in testing conditions and as the opening game of the series showed, it is not all about winning the toss to control the result. Past games at this venue shows how the day/night games give varying success rates. It is all about consistency.
In the opening game of this year’s Asia Cup, Sri Lanka displayed more all-round consistency than Pakistan and it showed with victory by 16 runs in the 47th over of the innings as the Shahid Afridi Pakistanis flattered to deceive as they went in search of a competitive 243 for victory but lost their way against steady Sri Lanka bowling at the death.
This was despite a brilliant responsible century by Afridi. Batting as if he was last man standing, fighting cramp and the mounting runrate, he jogged his way along, groaning with agony as he tumbled to the ground on a couple of occasions and declining use of a runner. It was brave effort under lights and showed that the Sri Lanka bowling was sharp and decisive, especially Lasith Malinga.
It was Afridi’s first three-figure ODI innings in five years and when he fell for 109 it was a stunning reflex catch by Kumar Sangakkara off Muttiah Muralitharan’s bowling. Up to that point, he had hit five of his seven sixes of Murali. Quite a punishment for the off-spinner on a pitch which gave some help.
Sri Lanka’s bowling hero of the evening’s entertainment was Lasith Malinga with his career best ODI figures of 5/34. In the last ball of his spell, with the Sri Lanka captain Sangakkara gambling on the missile accuracy of the sling-shot bowler’s accuracy to take the crucial lower-order wickets to wrench an impressive victory. His three wickets in 13 balls for only four runs, including a wide, scuppered the Pakistan innings.
You can bet though that Kirsten kept a jet-lagged eye on the game as Sri Lanka, who won the triangular series in Harare with an emphatic win over Zimbabwe, were able to recover from an uncertain start.
Kirsten soon had his mind focussed on India’s opening game of the Asia Cup Wednesday, and was quick to emphasise the point made by MS Dhoni at Monday’s media briefing of the need for the newly identified players to step up and display show their skills.
It is a long way from Harare in Zimbabwe where games were played during the day in mild sunny, dry winter conditions to the breezy, yet humid confines of this cultural region three time zones removed from where they were playing four days ago. It is also the demands of the international schedule and squeezing this event into a programme already cluttered by pre-World Cup 2011 needs.
Although India’s batting has been strengthened with Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Dhoni, the chances are for the new middle-order potentiates such as Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma to impress the selectors ahead of the big event nine months away. Typically, Kirsten focussed on the Asia Cup as the starting point for the World Cup.
"Our need now is to forget the 20/20 scene and step up and display their skills against two of the best bowling attacks in Asia," he told a hutch of media at the Rangiri Stadium nets while the opening shots of the series were being fired between hosts and title-holders Sri Lanka and a Pakistan side refurbished in the pace department with Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif.
"This series gives the batsmen who are eager to play for India in the World Cup a chance to show what they can do and for us to check and analyse their capabilities in testing conditions," he added.
"It is as important for the players selected as it is for our chance to evaluate their form and their abilities in these conditions," Kirsten agreed when commenting on the side without disclosing any selection plans for India’s opening game on Wednesday against Bangladesh.
It was the old firm of Akhtar and Asif who placed early pressure on Sri Lanka with a wicket each by the first ball of the ninth over with 36 runs on the board. Umar Akmal taking a fab catch to get rid of Tillakaratne Dilshan off Asif’s bowling. It wasn’t as great delivery either, but it one of any number of fine fielding efforts seen in both innings.
Mahela Jayawardene will feel aggrieved by his 'dismissal' with Billy Doctrove awarding the honours to Shoaib Malik on appeal for an lbw decision, the ball coming off the end of the bat into his pad for 54. It was a howler in the Daryl Harper category and the worry is that the West Indian is here for the tournament.
With that wicket falling at 150 and Thilan Samaraweera giving his wicket away at the start of the following over, along with yet another failure from Chamara Kapugedara 10 runs later, Sri Lanka needed someone to take control of the innings and build a competitive total.
It was left to Angelo Mathews to restructure the lower-order in an act of smart thinking and quality batting.
Rotating the strike, yet taking full advantage of some wayward bowling, Mathews worked the ball around with some stylish strokeplay, Hopefully Kapugedara was watching the younger, more talented all-rounder was showing how to handle tricky situation with a mix of aggression and marshalling the runrate with his own at 90.16.
It is why Sri Lanka were able to crawl out of a hole thanks to the 23-year-old all-rounder who plays for Kolkata Knight Riders.
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