Pallekele: Sri Lanka have found Pakistan tough nuts to crack in the limited-overs format in recent times. That script held true in Thursday's first One-day International, too. Beyond the toss, very little went right for Sri Lanka, who slumped to a ninth defeat in their last 11 50-over games against their subcontinental neighbours.
Having sweated under the covers for a majority of the last two days due to rains, the pitch at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium provided generous assistance by way of seam and bounce to the quicker bowlers, and Pakistan's three-pronged attack made merry to negate Mahela Jayawardena's decision to bat first.
Pallekele has invariably tended to favour the team batting first, which must have influenced Jayawardena to bat first. However, with Umar Gul, Sohail Tanvir and Mohammad Sami, playing his first ODI in more than five years, getting prodigious movement, Sri Lanka's top order was blown away for next to nothing.
Three rain interruptions didn't help Sri Lanka's cause either. The last of those, stopping play for just over 80 minutes with Sri Lanka on 107 for 7, forced the match to be reduced to 42 overs a side. Lahiru Thirimanne, the left-hand batsman, associated himself in an eighth-wicket stand of 50 with Nuwan Kulasekara and top-scored with a restrained, unbeaten 42 to guide Sri Lanka to 135 for 8.
Under the Duckworth-Lewis method, Pakistan needed 135 for victory, while Sri Lanka needed a miracle. Lasith Malinga and Kulasekara struck once each in their opening spells, but beyond that, there was little joy for Sri Lanka as Mohammad Hafeez, Misbah-ul-Haq, the skipper, and Umar Akmal conjured a six-wicket victory with reasonable ease.
Malinga and Kulasekara both asked uncomfortable questions at the start of the chase, but the lack of depth in the Sri Lankan pace bowling ranks meant whatever pressure the duo had imposed early on dissipated rapidly.
Hafeez and Akmal were the only batsmen throughout the game who appeared to have the measure of the conditions, batting with refreshing freedom, while Misbah provided the stabilising hand during successive half-century alliances. By the time Rangana Herath, the left-arm spinner, turned one across Hafeez's bat to set up a smart stumping for Kumar Sangakkara, Pakistan had closed in on the target. Akmal, the young right-hand batsman, then played some cracking strokes off the back foot, ensuring that Pakistan cantered home with plenty to spare.
This wasn't Pakistan's most disciplined performance in the field by any stretch of the imagination – wides yielded a whopping 23 runs, and four catches of varying degrees of difficulty were put down – but when they did get it right, they were quite magnificent.
Sri Lanka's modest final tally was a recovery of sorts after they found themselves reeling at 56 for 6 early in the 20th over. Gul did the initial damage in a terrific first spell of 6-1-13-3, marred only by two wides down the legside that flew to the boundary past the flailing gloves of Sarfraz Ahmed, during which he accounted for Tillakaratne Dilshan, Jayawardena and Dinesh Chandimal.
Even as wickets were tumbling at the other end, Kumar Sangakkara remained scoreless for 19 deliveries but just when he was beginning to look threatening, he was undone by a screaming yorker in Sami's first over. Sami, who alternated between nervy dead-balls and genuine brilliance, then got rid of Angelo Mathews in his next over before making way for the spinners.
Misbah brought Hafeez on in the 14th over, but Saeed Ajmal didn't bowl before the 25th and Shahid Afridi's first over was the 26th of an innings that found no momentum due to the rain interruptions. Hafeez hustled through his overs, giving very little away, but both Ajmal and Afridi were somewhat handicapped by the wet ball, courtesy a damp outfield.
Thirimanne, looking composed, was defiant during his carefully compiled essay, rallying the tail around to ensure that his bowlers had something to bowl with. Sri Lanka needed to strike early, and in a rush, if they were to pull off an unlikely victory. Hafeez and Misbah thwarted those designs, consigning Sri Lanka to their fifth ODI defeat on the trot.