Asia Cup 2022: Courageous Sri Lanka turn the clock back amid grave economic crisis in the country. Sri Lanka beat Pakistan in Asia Cup final lift the trophy sixth time.
Just when the full and straight last ball of Asia Cup 2022 broke the stumps of Haris Rauf, the whole Sri Lankan camp along with their players on the field went wild on clinching their sixth Asia Cup beating Pakistan by 23 runs defending a total at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium on September 11, 2022.
The economic crisis back home has forced schools to be closed down due to insufficient light during the day and prices of essential commodities are at an all-time high in the last three to four months. The crisis snatched Sri Lanka Cricket’s (SLC) power to host the tournament in home conditions and the board was forced to move the event to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But this hardly affected the Sri Lankan players’ brave brand of cricket that wins hearts on every single day.
“With the crisis prevalent back home, this is a tough time for all Sri Lankans, but hope we brought some smiles on the faces of our people,” Bhanuka Rajapaksa who was delivered the ‘Player of the Match’ award in the final expressed. “This is to the whole nation; they were waiting for this so long.”
A nightmare beginning to a pleasing end: Sri Lanka’s turnaround
The whole tournament was arranged with the hype of a probable three India-Pakistan games in a span of 15 days but Sri Lanka added some refreshing twist in the whole set-up. With a number of injuries in the group that saw them without Avishka Fernando, Dushmantha Chameera, Kusal Perera, Sri Lanka landed in Dubai having lost nine of their previous 11 T20I encounters.
It was hard to convince the minds that Sri Lanka would even progress to the Super Four stage specially after how they began in a nightmarish fashion in the opening game against Afghanistan when they were packed up for 105, losing the game by eight wickets with 59 balls to spare.
But two weeks on, under the charming leadership of Dasun Shanaka, a young side won five T20Is on the bounce beating Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan twice. For a bunch of guys who don’t have the mystic skills of Muttiah Muralitharan or Lasith Malinga, or the technically sound approach of Kumar Sangakkara or Mahela Jayawardene, many Sri Lankan players have grabbed colourful success even after the Lanka Premier League (LPL) for this season was rescheduled from July-August 2022 to December 2022 due to the economic crisis in the country.
Exposure and full freedom to the top-order
For any side to do well in putting up a score or chasing any huge score in the shortest format of the game, one box that teams always want to tick is having expressive openers who will offer the side the best possible beginning in the first six overs.
In the lead up to the tournament, Sri Lanka was the second-worst side only behind Bangladesh among the full members in the last one odd year in terms of opening partnerships and their condition at 5/3 in the first two overs against Afghanistan in the opening game was a prime example of the state of affairs.
But what Sri Lanka’s team management did well was to back their openers, Kusal Mendis and Pathum Nissanka, throughout the whole competition and the openers provided them some stable platforms in the next three games when they were asked to chase 170+ scores on all three occasions.
The combo had a great understanding between themselves; whenever Mendis took time to understand the conditions, Nissanka tried to go hard from the first over to release the pressure from his partner’s shoulders and the vice versa. Mendis has been superb for Sri Lanka dealing with spinners like Rashid Khan, Shakib Al Hasan and Yuzvendra Chahal in the best possible way.
The Sri Lanka openers have scored 328 runs together at an average of 29.81 and a strike rate of 131.72, smashing at a boundary frequency of 15.7 per cent during the whole tournament.
Bhanuka Rajapaksa holding one end of the stable middle-order
Among all the other teams, Sri Lanka appeared to have a very stable middle-order and one of its main reasons has been Bhanuka Rajapaksa clicking at the right time. The 30-year-old batter who recently grabbed an Indian Premier League (IPL) contract with Punjab Kings (PBKS) made a comeback in the side and ended up as his team’s highest run-getter with 191 runs at a strike rate of just under 150.
More than Rajapaksa’s numbers, the standout show has been the way he collected all these runs in tough situations. When he crossed the rope against Afghanistan in a Super Four game, Sri Lanka still required 57 runs in just 35 balls on a slow Sharjah pitch; Rajapaksa finished the game with a 14-ball 31 and got out with the team just two runs shy of the target which they eventually overcame by a margin of 4 wickets. Against India too, coming in a difficult situation when India made a quick comeback with four wickets, Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka captain Dasun Shanaka helped the side cross the line.
Even in the final against Pakistan, Rajapaksa rescued his side as he became the first player to be involved in a fifty-run partnership for the sixth and seventh wicket in an innings in T20Is, showing his full intent to attack rather than just defend during the full course of 20 overs.
Cool but aggressive Shanaka with the leadership hat
When Dasun Shanaka was handed over the leadership cap last year, SLC and the players were almost on two different tracks. To add to the seemingly difficult situation, Shanaka was himself struggling with both bat and ball at the time and it took some time for him to gel with the team in the best possible way.
In the last few months, Shanaka has found his mojo as a finisher and during the recent Pallekele T20I against Australia in June, Shanaka with his magical 25-ball 54* carried them over the line from a place where they needed 70 runs in just 26 balls to win the game with only four wickets in hand.
After their poor start in this Asia Cup against Afghanistan, the message from Shanaka for his players was quite straightforward but simple. “We knew we had the talent, but it was about applying the same in game scenarios and all the players stood up,” Shanaka had said. “As a captain, I give confidence to the players, I can’t ask for more than that.”
There were several instances of his cunning leadership during the course of Asia Cup 2022; whether putting a fielder at short third man in the initial phase of the final, where Babar Azam flicked straight to the man, or bringing up the mid-on fielder to force Virat Kohli going for a cross shot only to see his stumps flying, all were specimens of Shanaka’s captaincy skills. And not to forget how he curved a vital 33* run knock in 18 balls against India to make a place in the final.
A balanced mixture of pace and spin
When Sri Lanka suffered a huge blow of not having the express pace of Dushmantha Chameera, they needed their experienced campaigner Wanindu Hasaranga to step up in the seemingly hard times and the leg-spinner didn’t disappoint them.
The best example of Hasaranga’s utility was exhibited in the final when the young Sri Lanka star walked out to bat with his side at 58/5 in the ninth over and Pakistan were charging on them. Hasaranga took a little bit of time to settle with Bhanuka Rajapaksa but they decided that the former would take on the bowlers. Hasaranga began to smash the bowlers all around the park for his 36 in just 21 balls before changing the game in one single over with the ball. In his last over, he sent back Mohammad Rizwan, Khushdil Shah and Asif Ali to finish with 3/27 in four overs.
Hasaranga was supported well by Maheesh Theekshana who was mostly used like a pace bowling option being involved in the first couple of overs in the powerplay and the rest at the death. In the phase between 15-20 overs, Theekshana had an economy of 5.83 in six overs in the tournament, conceding just two boundaries and one maximum. In his 24 overs in the whole competition, Theekshana had an economy of just 6.75 which allowed Shanaka to use the pacers in the middle overs with ease.
In the youth section, Sri Lanka were blessed with a great left-arm pacer in the form of Dilshan Madushanka who displayed his skills in getting the big wickets. Pramod Madushan who was another debutant in the tournament gave his side crucial breakthroughs with the new ball picking up six wickets, including a crucial 4/34 in the final.
After saying all of that, it is still hard to believe that Sri Lanka are yet to qualify for the main event of ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2022 in Australia, which paints their hard time in the last year or so. Shanaka and his men will surely want to carry the momentum in the tournament.
Sri Lanka will begin their World T20 2022 campaign with a game against Namibia in the qualifying round on October 16 at the GMHBA Stadium (also known as Simonds Stadium) in South Geelong, Victoria.