Sharjah's die-hard cricket tragics waited eight years to see their favourite team in one-day action. They got their fill on Sunday, treated to five unforgettable vistas of Shahid Afridi's trademark arms-aloft celebration, as he single-handedly pipped Sri Lanka in a dramatic finish. Chasing 201 to level the series, Sri Lanka were on course with Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara reducing the equation to 46 needed off 74 balls. Afridi was, however, reading from a script no-one else had access to. He derailed the lower order with a mix of legbreaks, googlies and fastish offspinners, as Sri Lanka floundered hopelessly to lose their last seven wickets for just 19 runs, and with it the series.
That Pakistan even had 200 to defend was down to Afridi again, after they had disintegrated to 97 for 6. The situation was dire enough to force Afridi to change his normally aggressive approach and play within himself. Not only did Afridi manage the feat, he also managed to accelerate and finish with a (by his standards) modestly paced 75 off 65 balls, setting up the first instance of a player making a fifty and taking five wickets in an innings, twice.
Afridi scarcely put a foot wrong today, except when a sliding stop went awry early in the chase. His knee got stuck in the turf, wrenching out a massive divot as he landed in agony. Afridi was helped off the field, but even that wasn't enough to keep him out of the action for long.
By the time Afridi and Saeed Ajmal came on, Sangakkara and Jayawardene had settled in after Aizaz Cheema's opening spell had accounted for the openers. Ajmal started off with a maiden to Sangakkara, before Afridi - limping, but buzzing with energy nevertheless - made him look ordinary in his first over. He beat Sangakkara with a googly, and got him to inside-edge a legbreak past the stumps. Ajmal then slipped a doosra past Jayawardene's outside edge for the umpteenth time in the series, and Afridi dipped a legbreak menacingly close to his off stump.
With the run-rate under control, Sangakkara and Jayawardene buckled down and focused on playing time. Only three boundaries came in the 17-over phase starting with the 18th over, but Sri Lanka were within touching distance at the end of that grind. Jayawardene and Sangakkara passed their 50s, and ten Pakistani shoulders dropped in unison. One man was not finished, though.
After troubling Sangakkara endlessly, Afridi slipped a quick fizzer through his gate in his sixth over. Angelo Mathews was beaten by an Afridi legbreak and two Ajmal doosras before feathering his fourth ball down the leg side. The Sri Lankan dressing room began to look uneasy once Afridi ripped Jeevan Mendis out with an offbreak that angled in from round the stumps and straightened at 84 kph.
With 34 needed off 7 overs, Jayawardene held the key, but Afridi lulled him into driving low to Mohammad Hafeez who held well at cover. Seekkuge Prasanna scudded his first ball low to the left of the pitch, but the ease with which Afridi swooped and plucked it made for as telling viewing as the X-man celebration that followed. Within the space of three overs, he had flipped the game open. It was only fitting that he got the last wicket, when Thisara Perera slogged into the sky with the game already out of Sri Lanka's grasp.
Afridi's impact was just as telling with the bat, if not as dramatic. Dilhara Fernando did the early damage before Sri Lanka's young spinners found their voice for the first time since Muttiah Muralitharan's retirement, exposing Pakistan's inability to read the variations out of the hand. Hafeez holed out recklessly, while Shoaib Malik and Umar Akmal were clueless against Mendis' googlies.
Afridi's methods were perfect for the situation, though. He picked the spinners from the hand more often than not, but when he didn't he gave himself enough time to read them off the track. When Sri Lanka landed it in his zone, he pummelled them. Lasith Malinga was crashed through the covers, Mendis was bombarded over long-on, but Pakistan's mess was about to become messier.
Misbah ran himself out for the second time in two games, and Sarfraz Ahmed fell by the wayside, leaving Afridi shepherding the tail. Like he would later in the evening, Afridi found a willing partner in Ajmal. Their stand featured some feverish calling and smart running in the batting Powerplay, as Pakistan's tally ticked over from the abject to the realms of the defendable.
With ten overs to go, Afridi targeted Prasanna, backing away and lashing him with the spin for a six over extra cover to bring up his first fifty in 16 innings. He then thumped him straight and hacked through the covers for fours, before launching another six down the ground. Fernando dropped him off the next ball, but Afridi could not extend the carnage as he perished in the 44th over. Perhaps, the man knew right then that he already had enough to play with.