DAMBULLA: Defending champions Sri Lanka fought jangled nerves to override Shahid Afridi’s blistering century and record an exciting 16-run win over Pakistan in the first match of the Asia Cup on Tuesday.
Chasing 243 at the Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium, Pakistan seemed on course for a win as long as Afridi (109) was in the middle. But once Muttiah Muralitharan ended his scintillating 76-ball knock Lasith Malinga (5/34) mowed down the lower order and bundled Pakistan for 226 in 47 overs.
Earlier, Sri Lanka showed great character in recovering from a poor start to make a fighting 242 for nine, thanks in main to the never-say-die Angelo Mathews (55 not out), Mahela Jayawardene (54) and Kumar Sangakkara (42).
Afridi braved cramps and kept fighting but his batting colleagues completely let him down, something that could be gauged from the fact that the next best score was Umar Akmal’s 30.
Sitting pretty when Pakistan were staggering at 32 for four in the 14th over, Sri Lanka suddenly found themselves in dire straits when Afridi cut loose. Three Afridi-inspired partnerships — worth 73, 49 and 51 — saw Pakistan roar back into the game but his fall in the 41st over brought Lanka back into the game.
Hampered by a groin injury, the gallant Afridi struck as many as seven sixes and eight boundaries while producing his fifth ODI century. He dominated the Lankan attack until Muralitharan, battered and bruised by Afridi’s onslaught, had the last laugh.
Earlier, a two-wicket burst at the start of the innings by Malinga had put Sri Lanka firmly in control of the game until Afridi stepped on the gas and nearly turned the match on its head.
If Pakistan had blooded Shahzaib Hasan and Umar Amin with a hope of preparing their team for the 2011 World Cup, the two young top-order batsmen failed to live up to expectations. They struggled against Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekara, with neither having a clue against the seaming ball.
But Afridi made little of the pressure, smashing successive sixes of Farveez Maharoof and heaving the wily Muralitharan over the pickets on five occasions.
Malinga (5 for 34) was the pick of the bowlers, overshadowing an encouraging performance by Shoaib Akhtar who bowled his heart out on an unresponsive wicket.
Playing his first international match in 13 months, the controversial Pakistan fast bowler scalped three wickets in four short spells to prove that he still has fire in his belly to bowl full tilt at accomplished batsmen.
But his comeback wasn’t as telling as Pakistan would have expected it to be. The 34-year-old, who last played in a ODI against Australia in Abu Dhabi on May 3, 2009, did work up speeds in the region of 140 plus, but was far from his menacing best.
Evidently, he lacked rhythm and fitness, indicating that he could possibly break down during the course this four-nation tournament. His run-up was staggered and direction wasn’t pin-point but he was never short of effort, putting his heart into every delivery he hurled at the Lankans.
Akthar bagged the scalps of Upul Tharanga (11), Chamara Kapugedara (2) and Farveez Maharoof (1).
Sri Lanka were well served by Jayawardene and captain Sangakkara who raised 83 fighting runs for the third wicket.
The hosts were in a spot of bother at 36 for two when the two most experienced batsmen in the side came up with the rescue act.
At 150 for five in the 32nd over, Lanka were still in the woods. But Mathews found responsive and gutsy allies in Kulasekara, with whom he raised 43 runs for the eighth wicket, and Malinga (12) to take his side to a winning total, a score that Pakistan eventually failed to chase.