“While Lankans continued to pressurise the Afghanistan batsmen, the latter failed to decode the combination of Malinga and Pradeep, who ended with three and four scalps respectively”

The World Cup 2019 kickstarted on a one-sided note when West Indies and New Zealand crushed Pakistan and Sri Lanka in their respective opening encounters.

Pakistan turned the tables around in style when they conquered Trent Bridge as he defeated hosts and favourites England by 14 runs. It was then Sri Lanka’s turn to scripting a comeback in the tournament Sri Lanka’s opponents were not as competitive as Pakistan’s but Afghanistan these days are no pushovers. The match was always going to be a 50-50 affair and a rain interruption favoured Dimuth Karunaratne’s men, who breathed a sigh of relief as they triumphed in Cardiff by 34 runs by Duckworth-Lewis method.

After a humiliating 10-wicket loss to New Zealand, Sri Lanka needed a boosting win to lift their morale for the rest of the tournament and Afghanistan ended up being on the receiving end for the same. Against any other opponent, Sri Lanka would have ended up on the losing side but the poor bowling and fielding from the Afghans allowed the Islanders to post as many as 201 runs on the board after the game was revised to 41-over per-side. Afghanistan gifted Sri Lanka 35 runs as extra and for once, the Lankans did not suffer due to their batting, that still remains a major concern.

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Apart from Kusal Perera, who top-scored with 81-ball 78, no other Sri Lankan batter made a significant contribution with the bat. They found no answer to Mohammad Nabi’s spin, who eventually ended with 4 for 30, including three wickets in an over. At one point, Sri Lanka lost four wickets for just five runs and that sight would have allowed the Afghans to fancy their chances of registering an excellent win in a World Cup match against a former champion. Fortunately for the Lankans, they had two crucial stands that took them to a total of 201, that was enough for a win when the rain played spoil-sport and ruined Afghanistan’s momentum.

Also read: Sri Lanka batsmen need introspection before next match

Karunaratne and Perera shared a 92-run opening partnership before the former departed for 30, then Perera and Lahiru Thirimanne took the score to 144 without any further trouble. Once Nabi and Rashid Khan cleaned up Sri Lanka’s top-order, the batting side never recovered before they were restricted to 201 in 36.5 overs.

Sri Lanka’s last ODI win against a top-ranked team came two years back when they defeated Team India at the Champions Trophy. Going into the World Cup game against Afghanistan, Sri Lanka were on a nine-match losing streak against full-member sides in the ODIs but on Tuesday, they managed to pull off a victory despite a poor batting show and the credit went to two players, who made the victory possible for the Lankans.

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In Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Pradeep, Sri Lanka found warriors and fast bowlers who exploited the overcast conditions of Cardiff to push the Afghans to an edge. Malinga and Pradeep took their time, after the victory, as they slowly walked off the field, smiling and arm-in-arm. Malinga was a relieved man as he had taken Sri Lanka finally to an ODI win after 21 consecutive defeats. He had rediscovered his yorker. On the eve of the match, Malinga, a senior member of the team if not the captain anymore, urged the players to feel the shame of losing so horribly to New Zealand in their World Cup 2019 opener.

While the message quite did not reach the batsmen, it did reach Pradeep, who in fact was not played against New Zealand. He made the difference with his presence and spell that would see him pushing the Afghan batsmen to the backfoot and also dismissing four of them.

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The Sri Lankans attack found swing early in the chase but it took a while before Malinga drew first blood. He removed opener Mohammad Shehzad, who was looking to build a crucial stand with Hazratullah Zazai. The 34-run opening stand broke when Sri Lankan captain Karunaratne caught Shehzad at short mid-wicket. From there began Sri Lanka’s redemption as Afghanistan lost five wickets with just 57 runs on the board. While it was Malinga who opened the account, Pradeep and Perera carried out the blows to Afghans. As instructed by their coach, “bowl well on the wicket, hit the deck hard and hit the seam,” Lankans did exactly that.

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With Mohammad Nabi’s wicket, Afghanistan’s chances of a win went down drastically. But then, they found a new hope with the sixth wicket 64-run stand between skipper Gulbadin Naib and Najibullah Zadran. But that ended when Naib was to Pradeep for 23. From there on, Afghanistan required a further 66 runs off 16 overs with four wickets in hand.

While Lankans continued to pressurise the Afghanistan batsmen, the latter failed to decode the combination of Malinga and Pradeep, who ended with three and four scalps respectively. The win on Tuesday certainly would have boosted a low-in-confidence Sri Lanka, who next head to Bristol to take on Pakistan at the County Ground. Meanwhile, Afghanistan will aim to turn things around and create an upset when they face New Zealand on Saturday.

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