At a time when curators around the world believe that a good pitch is one on which the ball barely deviates off the straight and comes through at a good hittable pace, low-scoring limited-overs matches can be refreshing. But, when the lack of runs is a result of diffident batting rather than good bowling, as was the case at the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota, viewers can be forgiven for feeling shortchanged. Pakistan and Sri Lanka tried hard to out-do each other in the silliness stakes, and in the end Shahid Afridi proved the difference as Sri Lanka went down by 23 runs in pursuit of an eminently gettable 123.
Having taken a 1-0 lead in the two-match series on Friday, Sri Lanka rested Mahela Jayawardena and Lasith Malinga in a bid to see just how some of their fringe players would perform in these conditions. Angelo Mathews, the stand-in captain, suggested that Sri Lanka were yet to nail down the exact composition of their team for the T20 World Cup, to be played at these very venues later in the year, and this prompted their decision.
Pakistan, who brought Yasir Arafat, the seam-bowling allrounder, into the team in place of Umar Gul, who was expensive in the first T20I, chose to bat, and seemed to instantly regret their decision. Ahmed Shehzad waited on the back foot to an inswinger from Nuwan Kulasekara and Khalid Latif, who had backed up too far, was at the receiving end of an unlucky run out off the blade of Mohammad Hafeez. If 18 for two was a bit of a setback, things quickly took a turn for the worse as Kaushal Lokuarachchi struck twice. Umar Akmal was adjudged lbw to a non-spinning legbreak and Hafeez lobbed a dolly to short midwicket off a ball that seemed to die on the batsman. At 41 for 4 from 10.1 overs, the best of the batting was back in the dug out and half the overs had been consumed.
Shoaib Malik knuckled down and Afridi brought his not inconsiderable experience into play. Afridi's bat may bear the sticker "Boom Boom" after his well-earned nickname, but he's certainly not a one-gear batsman. Working the gaps rigorously and employing the sweep against the spinners, Afridi marked his 50th T20I with a half-century that led Pakistan some way out of the woods. Even with Afridi striking at nearly 158, Pakistan only reached 122, a target that would take some defending.
Kumar Sangakkara, the right man to shepherd such a chase, began well, but inexplicably gave Arafat the charge and ended up slashing to point. Kulasekara, presumably promoted to No. 3 to pinch hit, blocked three balls before ballooning the fourth to the cover-point fielder. Tillakaratne Dilshan survived multiple vociferous lbw appeals against Afridi, tried to cut a ball that was destined for his stumps and looked on in dismay as bat missed ball. Chamara Kapugedera attempted a drive off a slider and all of a sudden, Sri Lanka's chase was in disarray at 76 for 5.
Even with Mathews at the crease and a lower-order full of bowlers who can bat, Sri Lanka had left themselves with too much to do. Whether Jayawardena picked up valuable pointers about the players he gave chances to remains to be seen, but on the day, they were skittled for 99 and the two-match T20I series was squared.