One more defeat and Sri Lanka will be out of the 2018 Asia Cup. After a 137-run loss to Bangladesh in the tournament opener, the Angelo Mathews-led side will have everything to play for when they take on Afghanistan in a Group B clash at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Monday (September 16).
Despite having Bangladesh two down in the first over, Sri Lanka, courtesy sloppy fielding and Mushfiqur Rahim's brilliance, allowed the opposition to post a formidable 261 runs on the board. However, things got even worse when they came out to bat as they were bowled out for mere 124 in 35.1 overs.
In the absence of Dinesh Chandimal and Danuskha Gunathilaka, Sri Lankan batting looked incapacitated. Upul Tharanga showed positive intent but ended up playing way too many flashy shots which led to his downfall. None of the batsmen managed to cross the 30-run mark and it was only because of some handy, but futile, contributions from Dilruwan Perera and Suranga Lakmal the Islanders reached the three-figure mark.
The likes of Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva and Mathews will have to bat with more responsibility to allow players like Kusal Perera and Thisara Perera to play their natural game. The two Pereras have been in decent form of late, and along with other batsmen, will have to step up against Afghanistan's spin-dominated bowling attack.
"It was a pretty bad effort from the whole team," said Mathews after the defeat. "We made a lot of mistakes while batting. The decision making by the whole batting unit was poor."
However, Sri Lanka will be delighted with the way Lasith Malinga bowled in the last match. Making his return to the One-Day International side after a prolonged absence, the 35-year-old, who ended the game with figures of 10-2-23-4, showed everyone why he is still one of the best limited-overs pacers in world cricket. There were inswinging yorkers, slower ones and bouncers, and if the same Malinga shows up on Monday, he can make things tricky for Afghanistan.
Sri Lanka have lost 30 of 40 matches since the start of 2017 and the trend might continue if they don't bring their A-game against Afghanistan.
The tenth-ranked ODI side have had an impressive run in 2018, beating Ireland and Zimbabwe, apart from winning the Qualifiers to cement their place in the 2019 World Cup. This tournament will provide Afghanistan a perfect platform to test themselves in high-pressure situations and scrutinise where they stand against other top-contenders.
Afghanistan have named three frontline spinners - Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Sharafuddin Ashraf, alongside all-rounder Mohammad Nabi - in their squad. They will heavily rely on their proven spinners to once again do the job on the track that will offer good amount of turn. While second-ranked ODI bowler Rashid and Nabi need no recognition, 17-year-old Mujeeb too has managed to create his own identity in the last 12 months or so. It is not going to be easy for Sri Lankan batsmen to go after the spinners, and thus will look to attack the pacers. Afghanistan also have a fair few all-rounders in their ranks which provide them balance.
However, it's Afghanistan's batting that has let them down in recent times. Their last three defeats have all come when their batsmen have failed score 200. The onus will be on captain Asghar Afghan, Rahmat Shah, Mohammad Shahzad, Samiullah Shenwari to support their bowlers.
Sri Lanka have beaten Afghanistan both the times they have faced off in this format. The last time these two teams met was in the 2015 World Cup where Sri Lanka barely got over the line, but a lot has changed since then. While Afghanistan are making all the right moves, Sri Lanka's graph is only heading in one direction, downward.
Sri Lanka: Angelo Mathews (capt), Amila Aponso, Dushmantha Chameera, Akila Dananjaya, Niroshan Dickwella, Shehan Jayasuriya, Suranga Lakmal, Lasith Malinga, Kusal Mendis, Dilruwan Perera, Kusal Perera, Thisara Perera, Kasun Rajitha, Dasun Shanaka, Dhananjaya de Silva, Upul Tharanga.
Afghanistan: Asghar Afghan (capt), Javed Ahmadi, Munir Ahmad, Yamin Ahmadzai, Aftab Alam, Ihsanullah, Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Gulbadin Naib, Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Mohammad Shahzad, Samiullah Shenwari, Sayed Shirzad, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Najibullah Zadran.