Malinga, Thirimanne excel; Alam’s unbeaten century goes in vain

The build-up to the Asia Cup final was surcharged with the promise of an infernal battle of ace spinners, calm captains, and lusty hitters.

On Saturday night, however, all the hype was scattered as Sri Lanka merely needed a delicate waltz to conquer Pakistan by five wickets at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium.

That the victory was achieved with 22 balls to spare was a thumping affirmation of Sri Lanka's dominance. Its decisive step towards a fifth Asia Cup title was piloted by two industrious performances in Lasith Malinga's five-wicket haul and Lahiru Thirimanne's century.

Needing 261 to win, it was Kusal Perera's power that initially ran the Pakistan attack ragged. His constricted whip-pulls and heavy, bottom-handed drives had Sanath Jayasuriya — whose memories are evoked by Kusal's batting — smiling and clapping.

Thirimanne was busy furnishing the buttery-smooth drives whenever he wasn't sweeping powerfully. After Kusal was out stumped off Saeed Ajmal, Kumar Sangakkara was trapped in front off the very next delivery.

Big stand

But Mahela Jayawardene soared into form-territory at the most appropriate moment and joined hands with Thirimanne to ramp up 156 runs in 162 balls for the third wicket.

Pakistan's woes were largely a result of its pacemen's ineffectuality. With shabby fielding further messing things up, it was a matter of time before the Lankan players flashed their broadest smiles.

Earlier, after Pakistan had elected to bat, Sharjeel Khan’s boundaries in the first over, a brace of minimalist back-foot punches — achieved with little footwork — had an ominous tinge. Sure enough, Lasith Malinga entrapped the batsman off the last ball, an abounding flick finding its way to mid-on. He had picked up a wicket in the first over of an innings for the 15th time.

Malinga went on to prise out a wicket in each of his next two overs. First went Ahmed Shehzad after throwing his hands at one that moved sharply off a length. Next, Mohammad Hafeez was done in by similar outward-movement. Hafeez had been dropped by a diving Sachithra Senanayake at point in the previous over.

Repairing early damage

At 18 for three, two kindred souls inked a collaboration that’s in keeping with their image; Alam and captain Misbah-ul-Haq stationed themselves in the trenches and gnawed away at Sri Lanka’s patience.

Their 122-run alliance spanned 193 deliveries.

The 28-year-old Alam’s style might not fit in with puritanical batting definitions. It was, however, just as pleasing to watch if you possessed a taste for steely, nerve-driven combats.

While his ‘crab-like’ set-up evokes comparisons with Shivnarine Chanderpaul, there is also a lot of Simon Katich to his batting. The drives with an angular blade and nifty tucks behind square are products of the Katich school of batting.

It was against Bangladesh on March 4 that Alam had played his first ODI in more than three years.

Misbah, often disparagingly called ‘tuk tuk’, trudged along straight-faced. The 39-year-old also dodged a bullet when on 19. A fine edge to the ’keeper induced by his Lankan counterpart, Angelo Mathews, went undetected by umpire Bruce Oxenford. Misbah looked to the skies with a knowing smile. He had got a similar reprieve in the opening game of the tournament.

Creditably, though, Misbah and Alam were unaffected by prolonged phases of slow-scoring. The innings gained traction in due course, Misbah swatting Thisara Perera over deep mid-wicket. Both batsmen took a liking for Senanayake’s stuff, further fuelling the debate on Ajantha Mendis’s ‘tactical’ omission.

It was Alam’s turn to receive some luck as Sangakkara dropped a tough chance when on 41. A wicket eventually came Lanka’s way only when Malinga was re-introduced. Misbah’s exaggerated heave was pouched by the long-on fielder.

Umar Akmal’s arrival lent the innings a shot of briskness. He chipped down with regularity to unnerve the bowler. Alam, too, went into overdrive, swinging neatly in the arc between long-leg and deep mid-wicket. Befittingly, his hundred came with a trenchant whip.

Coming in with two balls to spare, Shahid Afridi didn’t face a single ball. Nevertheless, Pakistan had mopped up 101 runs in the last 10 overs.

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