The third league match of the round-robin Asia Cup was won easily by Pakistan but not before the constantly improving Afghan team created a bit of an early scare against their more illustrated opponents. Like Bangladesh, Afghanistan is steadfastly determined to get rid of the tag of minnows in cricket. On February 27, Afghanistan took the field after winning the toss in only their third ODI game in a tournament, involving test-playing nations. Though Pakistan openers produced a reasonable good first-wicket stand, it was not because the Afghan bowlers were found wanting. The opening bowlers, who shared the attack were both Zadrans; Shapoor and Dawlat. And they bowled with fire, clocking a speed hovering on the 140-plus kmph mark. Such pace can easily nullify the slow nature of Fatullah pitch. Lasith Malinga showed that in the match against Pakistan a few days ago. While Dawlat faulted on his line and length, Shapoor was immaculate. Except one over from Dawlat, in which three boundaries were conceded, the Afghan attack was mostly well directed as Pakistan could score just 39 in the first 10 overs. Pakistan lost their first wicket in 13th over and by the 24th, they were tottering at 89/4, thanks to some clever bowling by Hamza Hotak, Mirwais Ashraf and Samiullah Shenwari. With a poor run-rate of less than 4 at mid-way stage, Pakistan faced a real danger of being bowled out cheaply against a team, who had yet to establish itself completely.
At 117/6, when Dawlat castled Shahid Afridi’s stumps, Pakistani batsmen had already consumed 29.3 overs and most established batsmen were back in the pavilion. It was clear that Afghan bowlers had Pakistan in some pretty serious trouble. Then a savior appeared in the form of Umar Akmal, who started rebuilding the Pakistan innings in the company of Anwar Ali. Though Anwar Ali left at 177, Umar Akmal carried on bravely with Umar Gul. Towards the closing stages, Akmal took Pakistan to a safe total of 248/8, while also completing a quick-fire century.
When Afghanistan came on to bat, they didn’t seem overawed either by Pakistan attack or the fact that they needed to cross 249 in 50 overs. In 15 overs Afghanistan lost just one wicket. The only problem they faced was the rate-of-scoring and that is where their inexperience showed. In addition, Pakistan spinners tied the Afghan batsmen down. There was a good partnership of 74 in 18.1 overs between Stanikzai and Mangal. But once these two were out, Afghanistan collapsed to 176 all out, giving Pakistan a 72-run victory with a bonus point. But for Afghanistan it was not a tame surrender, as many cricket experts would have thought.
In the other match on February 28, Sri Lanka sent India in, after winning the toss. But like in the last match against Bangladesh, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan couldn’t get to score freely against the Sri Lankan bowlers. Persistence with Sharma is baffling since his inclusion in the team is causing India dear already. It is time Indian selectors took some action. Mercifully, Dhawan scored 94 in 114 balls in a somewhat subdued innings and with Kohli chipping in with another good knock of 48, India carried on further. But both these batsmen were foxed by beauties from Ajantha Mendis, which hit the woodwork behind. After Dhawan and Kohli left, the middle order flopped. Except Rahane and Jadeja, both of whom scored 22 each, no one appeared to take charge. It was as if these batsmen expected Kohli and Dhawan to play all 50 overs. It was in fact necessary for India to put up a fighting total since their bowling lacks sting. But the run-rate fell very low, when just a few overs remained. Luckily for India Ashwin and Shami played some extravagant shots and India could reach 264/9 at finish.
Lankan openers began in great fashion. There were many adventurous strokes, but Indian fielders allowed them to get away with some skiers and the first-wicket stand was an impressive 80 runs in 17.2 overs. Kusal Perera fell as the second wicket at 138 but Kumar Sangakkara was still there and looked in great touch. Then Jadeja suddenly created a scare among Lankans by claiming two quick wickets by sending Jayawardane and Chandimal back to the pavilion. But Sangakkara was unflappable and with him in the middle, India could not have hoped for any miracle. It was a single-handed effort by a man of proven caliber. His 18th ODI hundred scored off 83 balls was the fastest of his career. Sangakkara and other Sri Lanka batsmen were greatly helped by India’s sloppy show in the field and insensitive bowling. Sangakkara was sent more full-tosses than he hoped and that made Sri Lanka’s task easier. Even after Sangakkara departed, the remaining batsmen saw Lanka through and registered a crucial victory by 2 wickets in the 50th over.
This match saw India fail in all departments of the game, with the fielding being of the worst quality. Next up, India takes on Pakistan on March 2 and that will be a crucial must-win game for India. But Indians need to put some thoughts into their game and make changes in the team combination against their arch-rivals.