The disappointingly sparse turnout at the R Premadasa Stadium was the only giveaway that this wasn't a full-blown international fixture. No quarter is asked and none given when India and Pakistan go head to head, and it was no different on an overcast and muggy Monday afternoon.
By classification, this was a warm-up fixture ahead of the ICC World Twenty20 2012, beginning in Hambantota on Tuesday. No India-Pakistan cricket encounter can ever be only a 'warm-up' game, and this run-fest wasn't either. Pakistan came through a riveting clash of former World T20 champions, the 2009 winners overpowering the 2007 titlists by five wickets in a high-scoring thriller.
India looked to have the upper hand after they amassed 185 for 3, but as is their wont, Pakistan didn't give up. Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma had provided the Indian innings with the thrust it required, and Pakistan found their own heroes in Kamran Akmal and Shoaib Malik as they blasted their way to 186 for 5 with five deliveries to spare.
The older of the Akmal brothers played a lone hand once his burgeoning stand with Mohammad Hafeez, the captain, was terminated by R Ashwin. But when he found another ally in Malik, the match turned on its head. Malik took his time playing himself in as Akmal raced into overdrive, repeatedly clearing the boundary boards by some distance to keep Pakistan well in the hunt.
Akmal and Malik took on India's most experienced bowlers, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, unleashing a succession of beefy strikes. Pakistan was 111 for 5 after 14 overs, but piled up 46 in the next three so that going into the last three overs, they needed only 29 for a famous victory. From there, it was a breeze as Akmal finished undefeated on 92 and Malik made 37, their 95-run stand spanning a mere 46 deliveries.
Ashwin (4 for 23) clearly outbowled Harbhajan, nipping a dangerous opening alliance by getting rid of Imran Nazir, then returning to dismiss Hafeez, Shahid Afridi and Umar Akmal in the space of seven deliveries, but with little else by way of support, India couldn't mount a successful defence of their intimidating total.
Ashwin, who was also celebrating his 26th birthday today, at one time looked to put India in a solid position. His figures read 4-0-23-4 and the only other wicket to fall was through a run-out and that too in his over. The other bowlers could not live up to their billing though.
Pakistan have another warm-up tie scheduled for Wednesday against England, and will hope that their stronger suit, the bowling, picks itself up. The nature of the Premadasa strip did play its part, but Pakistan's bowling lacked customary discipline, only Saeed Ajmal commanding respect with his high-quality offspin.
India, opting to bat, were provided a frenetic start by Virender Sehwag, while Gautam Gambhir, looking none the worse for sustaining a blow to his right hand in the previous game against Sri Lanka, was content to play second fiddle. Boundaries flowed in torrents at the start but the introduction of Ajmal brought a temporary lull to the proceedings.
Ajmal could have had Sehwag first ball, and did get rid of him off his second, acrobatically caught at point by Shahid Afridi, while conceding just one run in his first over. It triggered Pakistan's best bowling phase of the game as they conceded only 10 runs between overs five and seven, but that was the phase during which Kohli and Rohit were getting their eye in.
Once the pair sized up the conditions, they were fairly unstoppable. Kohli, in the middle of a purple patch that netted him the ICC ODI Player of the Year award, was all classical strokeplay while Rohit continued his good form of the previous match with a power-packed knock during which he took a heavy toll of Afridi's leg-spin.
At no stage during the third-wicket partnership, worth 127 off just 79 deliveries, did Pakistan look like breaking through. Hafeez rang the changes, but beyond that, he could do little else as the two batsmen kept finding the boundaries regularly, and running brilliantly between the wickets as they tested Pakistan's athleticism on the relatively vast outfield.
Kohli was the first to reach his half-century, drilling Sohail Tanvir straight back past him, but India would have been more buoyed by Rohit's 50, coming as it did on the back of a 26-ball 37 against Sri Lanka on Saturday. The association was finally terminated by Ajmal in the penultimate over of the innings, but by then, it had done serious damage.
Not as much as Akmal would inflict later though.
India 185/3 in 20 overs (Virat Kohli 75 not out, Rohit Sharma 56; Saeed Ajmal 2-22) lost to Pakistan 186/5 in 19.1 overs (Kamran Akmal 92 not out, Mohammad Hafeez 38, Shoaib Malik 37 not out; R Ashwin 4 - 23) by 5 wickets.