For several periods of this rain-affected game a significant upset appeared on the cards.
Certainly when Sri Lanka’s arthritically brittle batting line up collapsed from 119 for one to 201 all out, it appeared for all the world as if Afghanistan would record one of the more famous victories in the history of this tournament.
After a spectacular top-order collapse of their own, a wonderful sixth-wicket stand of 64 from 74 balls between Afghanistan’s captain Gulbadin Naib and Najibullah Zadran looked to have taken the tournament’s minnows to the brink of a giant killing.
But after Gulbadin departed, LBW to Sri Lanka’s 32-year-old journeyman seamer Nuwan Pradeep, the Afghan charge faltered and a golden chance slipped away.
It says much about the paucity of this current Sri Lanka side’s spinner-less bowling attack that Pradeep, with a 50-over bowling average of 38 and an economy rate in excess of six an over, was the best bowler in their side by a distance.
He bowled nicely here to be fair, picking up four for 31 from nine overs. But much of Sri Lanka’s work with bat, ball and in the field was substantially below par.
Afghanistan may never know how they failed to win this game. Certainly, an extras column showing no fewer than 22 wides and 35 extras in total was one of the reasons they fell short. Sri Lanka’s contribution of 15 wides made them positively parsimonious by comparison.
But, set a reduced winning total of 187 from 41 overs following heavy early afternoon rain, it really should have been in Afghanistan’s reach to topple the 1996 World Cup champions.
In the end they fell short.
Following their humiliating 10-wicket defeat to New Zealand in the opening game of this tournament, this 34-run win is a significant and important shot in the arm for Angelo Mathews and his misfiring team.
But they will be under no illusions about their place in the world order following an unconvincing display which included another spectacular batting collapse and was only rescued by a combination of some accurate fast bowling from Pradeep, combined with chaotic Afghanistan top-order batting.
Pradeep was the pick of Sri Lanka’s bowlers, but it is their extraordinarily fragile batting which will be of most concern to a once great force in white-ball cricket.
On this form, they will strike fear into precisely no-one.
They briefly appeared to have rediscovered their collective mojo after Afghanistan won the toss and put them into bat at a sparsely populated Cardiff Wales Stadium (note to ICC sponsor police it is definitely not called the SWALEC Stadium any more).
When Sri Lanka openers Dimuth Karunaratne and Kusal Perera were thrashing the bowling to all parts, bringing up 50 from 4.5 overs, Gulbadin must have wondered if inserting the opposition had been the right call.
But, just as they been against New Zealand, it did not take long for Sri Lanka’s batting deficiencies to be horribly exposed.
Afghanistan’s rangy off-spinner Mohammad Nabi did much of the damage, taking four for 30 from nine probing overs, including three wickets in the space of five balls to spark the Sri Lankan collapse.
Wicket-keeper Perera held the Sri Lankan innings together with 78 from 81 balls but this was another batting performance way below the level they need to challenge the best teams in the tournament.
Kusal Mendis has lasted just three balls in two innings in the tournament while captain Matthews was one of three Sri Lankans to bag a duck.
Sri Lanka’s batsmen are simply not at the races and their final total of 201 all out from 36.5 overs, reduced to a target of 187 under the Duckworth Lewis method, added up to another wholly inadequate batting contribution.
Afghanistan really should have scored the runs they needed but quickly subsided to 57 for five as Pradeep set about delivering his best bowling display in a Sri Lanka shirt to record figures of four for 31 from nine overs.
But just as the game appeared lost, Najibullah and his captain proceeded to haul their team back off the ropes and within touching distance of what really should have been a famous win.
Gulbadin’s departure, LBW to Pradeep for 23, saw Afghanistan reduced to 121 for six but with Najibullah still at the crease their remained a faint hope.
His lovely cameo of 43 came to an abrupt end, and with it Afghanistan’s hopes of winning, when Sri Lanka captain Karunaratne produced an all-too rare piece of excellence in the field with a direct hit from 20 yards to run Najibullah out.
Lasith Malinga wrapped up the tail as Sri Lanka claimed a 34-run win but they will have to be much, much better than this to have a hope of progressing.
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