It rained incessantly in Brisbane on Tuesday morning, but by the time the Afghanistan and Sri Lanka players reached the Gabba for their must-win T20 World Cup fixture, the skies cleared up.
And over the next three and a half hours, as the sun played hide and seek, the Sri Lankan players dominated the game, defeating Afghanistan by six wickets to stay on course for a semifinal berth.
On a used pitched - the same one that saw Australia beating Ireland last night - Afghanistan captain Mohammad Nabi won the toss and opted to bat, a decision that did not quite go as per plan. A miserly Lankan bowling line-up restricted Afghanistan to 144 for eight, before the batters rode on Dhananjaya de Silva’s unbeaten 66 to chase down the target with nine balls to spare.
On a surface that looked a bit slow and aided the spinners initially, Afghanistan’s innings saw a lot of starts from its top-order batters but none of them could cross 30. After a solitary run in the opening over of Kasun Rajitha, Rahmanullah Gurbaz - the top-scorer of the Afghan innings with 28 off 24 (2x4, 2x6) - laid a strong foundation with a 42-run opening partnership with Usman Ghani.
A quality batter with lots of T20 experience, Gurbaz took time to settle in but eventually accelerated with a couple of sixes and fours. After finishing the PowerPlay at 42 for no loss, Afghanistan tried to attack but a good-length delivery by Lahiru Kumara in the very first delivery after the PowerPlay rattled Gurbaz’s stumps.
While Kumara brought Sri Lanka back into the game, wrist-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga (three for 13) put his side in the driver’s seat.
After Gurbaz’s exit, Ghani went on to score a run-a-ball 27 before holing out to Hasaranga as the runs dried up in the middle-overs and Afghanistan went without scoring a boundary for seven overs. With none of the middle-order batters stepping up, Hasaranga claimed a brace in the final over, which only went for three runs, as the Afghans failed to capitalise on a steady start.
Afghanistan looked up to its star spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman for an early breakthrough. Mujeeb, who is familiar with the pitch at the Gabba due to his Big Bash League (BBL) stint with Brisbane Heat, cleaned up Pathum Nissanka off the last ball of his first over. Having lost its first wicket for 12, Sri Lanka looked cautious but Dhananjaya (66 n.o., 42b, 6x4, 2x6) stood firm - forging partnerships with Kusal Mendis and Charith Asalanka to bring its chase back on track.
As Dhananjaya cruised along, Afghanistan, despite having Mujeeb and Rashid Khan in its ranks, claimed just two wickets in the first 10 overs. By the time Rashid dismissed Asalanka and Mujeeb removed Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka was just four runs away from victory. Dhananjaya sealed the match with a four off Fazalhaq Farooqi.
Towards the end of the game, Rashid seemed to have twisted his knee while trying to stop a boundary. He limped out of the field, with the physio and teammates accompanying him.
While this defeat knocked Afghanistan out of the tournament, a clinical performance by Sri Lanka kept the Asia Cup champion in the hunt for a spot in the semifinals.
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