How the Lankan lions lifted the trophy against all odds and why the hot favourites flunked.
By Bilal Ahsan Dar
It’s not how you start that’s important, but how you finish.
~ Jim George
After beginning with a humiliating loss to Afghanistan, when they were bowled out for a mere 105 runs, Sri Lanka made an exemplary comeback to conquer quietly and get crowned as the Asian champions. A side without any star cricketers, seen as the underdogs and probably in nobody’s favorite list showed what wonders self-confidence, a never-say-die attitude and team effort can do.
“I think in T20 cricket, anything can happen. We can bounce back in the next game,” a gutted Lankan skipper Dasun Shanaka said, after losing to Afghanistan in the tournament opener.
In the next game, Sri Lanka did bounce back by defeating Bangladesh in a tense chase to make it to the super-4 stage. This was followed by a thrilling victory over Afghanistan to avenge the first match loss and when they defeated the hot favourite India, handing them a shocking 6- wicket defeat, a sensational comeback story was shaping. They went on to beat Pakistan as well before meeting them in the final.
What stood out about Sri Lanka was that they played as a team and never relied on odd individual performances. Their top five batters contributed all and played impactful knocks that were more for a team win than for keeping their place in the side. This is visible in the stats when we see none of their batters in the top three run getters of the tournament. In the final match of the tournament, when Pakistan came all guns blazing at them and reduced the side to 58-5, Rajapaksha struck a sublime 45-ball 71, stitching crucial partnerships with Wanindu Hasaranga and Chamika Karunaratne to post 170/6 on the board.
Toss had played a significant role in the tournament and team batting second was presciently the favourite to chase, but Sri Lanka had other ideas. Even though Madushanka began disastrously sending down a no ball and 9 wides to give Pakistan an advantage, but he came back strongly and was well supported by Pramod Madhushan and Maheesh Theekshana, the off spinner who bowled impressively in the powerplay. Sri Lankan bowling unit was good enough to bowl Pakistan out for 147.
Interestingly, the Asian champions are going through the T20I World Cup qualifiers to seek a place in the main tournament in Australia which starts in about five week’s time. Such was the form of this team before the Asia Cup that they finished outside the ICC rankings that would have given them a direct entry into the T20I World Cup 2022.
Pakistan, even though they started on a losing note against India, fought it out till the last ball which reflected their determination to play good cricket and an ability to win the tournament. The19-year old debutant Nasim Shah won a million hearts when, despite cramps, he ran in hard and bowled his heart out till the end. He started off impressively having scalped KL Rahul in the very first over and looked unplayable from ball one compensating the absence of Shaheen Afridi to perfection. Their second game against Hong Kong was a cake walk, bowling the opposition out for a measly 38, a new record. With their revenge win over archrivals India in the super-4 clash, their billing as the favourites went up exponentially. In the next game, just when it appeared Afghanistan were winning the game, Naseem shah, coming in at no. 10 hit back to back sixes in the last over to give his side a one-wicket win. It was clear that the side possessed everything to lift the trophy before some bad captaincy decisions, complacency and bad form of the middle-order batters did them in.
The approach of the openers Babar and Rizwan in the powerplay was negative, bereft of any intent, throughout the tournament. Rizwan played with a powerplay strike rate of 95 only and Babar managed just 83 runs across six innings. Pakistan badly missed a powerplay enforcer. Fakhar’s form added to the worries and so did the failure of Asif Ali and Khushdil Shah at the backend of the innings. Pakistan’s bowling largely made up for their batting weaknesses in all the matches and it was the allrounder Nawaz who won the game against India and bowler Naseem shah who won it against Afghanistan. Pakistan’s middle order was badly exposed in the tournament. Ifhtikar made a couple of small contributions but his strike rate was very poor, Khushdil Shah never looked comfortable at this level and Asif Ali seemed to have lost his six-hitting ability which is his claim to fame. In the final, Babar Azam’s immaturity as a captain was also visible when he let Sri Lanka off the hook after the bowlers had done exceptionally well to reduce them to 58-5. Pakistan’s every weakness came to a head in the final game.
Pakistan’s Asia Cup performance should give them a fair idea of the weaknesses and therefore a chance to work on them and be better prepared for the upcoming world cup.
Tournament’s most favorite team India began the campaign with a victory over Pakistan. All eyes were on Virat Kohli who marked his return to the side with a composed fifty. Hardik Pandya with his allround brilliance made sure he took India over the line despite a few hiccups. A straightforward win over Hong Kong meant that India qualified to super-four stage without any fuss. In the super-four stage, they had to again play Pakistan. As toss played a crucial role in the tournament, this time around Pakistan won it and, as expected, sent India in. India started off very aggressively in the powerplay with Rohit Sharma and KL Rahu,l but Pakistan bowlers came back strongly to restrict them from batting Pakistan out of the game, although India did manage a very healthy 181. Pakistan’s remarkable chase was led by Rizwan (71) and Nawaz (42).
In the next game against Sri Lanka, India were a clear favorite despite their loss in the previous game but a questionable defensive mindset cost them the match. India dropped Ravi Bishnoi who bowled well against Pakistan. The defeat meant India were almost out of the tournament .
Toss played a role in India’s poor show in the Asia Cup, but that was just one of the determining factors. The team looked somewhat unsure whether or not to go with their ultra-aggressive template after their first game against Pakistan when the Pakistani bowlers didn’t allow their batsman to open their shoulders. KL Rahul had a scratchy run upfront, which brought the middle order under pressure. The middle order too wasn’t settled. Dinesh Karthik’s exclusion wasn’t understood, Karthik has been a finisher with good effect in the recent times for India. Ravinder Jadeja’s injury added to the woes and hurt the side’s balance. Bhuveshwar Kumar struggled in the death overs and India badly felt the absence of Bumrah.
Bangladesh continued with their losing streak following a disgraced performance against Zimbabwe and, therefore, they have many things to work on before the world cup. Afghanistan continues to give a glimpse of their capability in the T20 format with some fearless batting and skillful bowling, but will have to learn to finish the games. A clinical win over Sri Lanka and an excellent run chase against Bangladesh depicted their ability to beat the well-established sides, but the inexperience showed when they couldn’t finish on top against Pakistan, despite taking the game to the last over while defending a low score.
Bilal Ahsan Dar is a blogger and cricket buff.