Pakistan put one foot in the final of the Asia Cup with a six-wicket win over a tired Sri Lankan outfit, which did not have enough steam to defend a modest 188. Pakistan's bowlers set up the win with a disciplined effort, and Misbah-ul-Haq and Umar Akmal compiled positive half-centuries to arrest a top-order wobble. Their eagerly anticipated clash with India on Sunday may not carry much context for them if India beat Bangladesh tomorrow, but Sri Lanka's second consecutive defeat makes an India-Pakistan final likely.
The defeat left a few important questions for Sri Lanka to answer after a long, strenuous season away from home, where they have had mixed results. Their shot-selection for one, starting from the seniors at the top, has been exposed, leaving plenty for the lower middle-order to do. With Upul Tharanga scoring another half-century at No.6, it strengthens his case for being reinstated as an opener, meaning that Mahela Jayawardene would have to move back down the order. (Also read: Statistical highlights of the match and Points Table)
The presence of Dilshan and Jayawardene at the top was aimed at giving Sri Lanka a strong start in a must-win game. They started aggressively today, but in their quest lost quick wickets. It was an underwhelming performance from a team that bats deep but did not have the application to match their talent.
Jayawardene fell trying to drive past extra cover. Dilshan, after some crunching drives through the off side, fell off a miscued pull. The wicket was nicely set up by Aizaz Cheema, who peppered him with short deliveries and challenged him to target the on side, with a fielder in the deep. Two more soft dismissals, those of the young Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne, put a lot of pressure on Kumar Sangakkara and Tharanga.
They suffered in the bowling Powerplay, scoring only 11 runs. Their stand of 96 featured several singles, 61 of them, and five boundaries. Tharanga was comfortable against the spinners, picking up boundaries through the off side via deft cuts. Sangakkara, who began with a clipped boundary past midwicket, pounced on a short delivery from Mohammad Hafeez to bring up the fifty stand.
Sri Lanka once again succumbed to a familiar weakness - the batting Powerplay. As it happened against India, they lost their foothold in the first over of the field restrictions. Saeed Ajmal was taken off after the bowling Powerplay but Misbah brought him back at the start of the 36th over. He struck by bowling Tharanga with the doosra, before inducing a poor shot from Farveez Maharoof. Sangakkara tried to force the pace by charging Cheema but ended up dragging the ball onto the stumps. His reaction after being dismissed, swishing the air with his bat, summed up Sri Lanka's problems.
Pakistan picked up the last six wickets for just 27 runs and it was largely due to Sri Lanka's inability to read Ajmal's doosra. Cheema went on to take four wickets while Ajmal took three. It was an especially satisfying display by Cheema, who got a pasting early on but backed himself to bowl fast and attack the batsmen.
A timid start by Pakistan, which included the loss of three wickets, gave Sri Lanka hope of defending a modest 188. Jayawardene, maintaining a stony expression, had plenty to expect from his beefed-up bowling attack, and they responded by trying to make life tough for the top order by bowling tight lines. Some committed ground fielding, especially by Dilshan, and catching lifted the spirits of the bowlers.
Jayawardene stuck to his tactic of constantly shuffling fielders in various close catching positions to create chances. The openers, Nasir Jamshed and Mohammad Hafeez, started watchfully but succumbed to tame dismissals, not very different in character to their counterparts. Jamshed holed out to mid-on before Hafeez scooped the legspinner Seekkuge Prasanna to point.
Younis Khan gifted Suranga Lakmal his second wicket with an exaggerated whip to Farveez Maharoof at mid-on, who timed his dive and caught the ball inches off the ground. At 33 for 3, Sri Lanka were in the game but three boundaries by Akmal off a Lasith Malinga over in the bowling Powerplay - all risk-free - calmed the nerves for Pakistan. Misbah was prepared to wait for the bad deliveries, driving Prasanna past the covers before launching him for a six over long-on.
The calmness of Misbah and exuberance of Akmal combined well to ensure that Pakistan crossed the finish line before the 40th over, which gained them a bonus point. Akmal was strong behind square on the on side, sweeping the spinners and paddling them away with the fine leg up. As the target shrunk, Sri Lanka appeared to throw in the towel. The fast bowlers failed to control the scoring, as Pakistan found the gaps with ease during the batting Powerplay.
Sri Lanka have a very slim chance of making the final, provided they beat Bangladesh convincingly, and India lose both their remaining games. A back-door entry, however, would not leave them satisfied.