We had our nerves shred, our nails bitten and our voices lost, but after 40 overs of pulsating cricket, Sri Lanka progressed through to the final of the 2012 World T20 with a tight win over a fighting Pakistan side. The low-scoring nature of the game could have been predicted at the toss, such were the conditions in Colombo. We saw in the preceding women’s semi-final that the pitch was dry, slow and dusty, and batting was always going to be a bit of a struggle. Mahela Jayawardene, this time officially taking on the role of captain, won an important toss and chose to bat, hoping to post a decent total and then apply some pressure on a potentially fragile Pakistani middle order.
It is not for nothing though, that Pakistan’s attack is thought to be the best in the world in this format, and they put together an impressive display. It soon became clear that scoring freely would not be easy, and the normally aggressive Tillakaratne Dilshan was shackled by some probing bowling, led by Sohail Tanvir. At the other end, Mahela’s enduring class allowed him to work the ball around on this tricky track. Importantly, the top-heavy Sri Lankan batting line-up did not lose early wickets, and to reach 62-0 off 10 overs was a promising start. Jayawardene, for all his fluency, then succumbed to Afridi, having made 42 (36 balls). Kumar Sangakkara arrived and was atypically bullish in his stroke-play, but after he holed out to Mohammad Hafeez, Sri Lanka dipped into something of a rut. Dilshan cut out the big strokes in an attempt to bat responsibly, and Jeewan Mendis never really got going, struggling against a fantastic spell of death bowling from Umar Gul. Sri Lanka stumbled through the closing overs, and it was only thanks to some lusty blows from Thisara Perera that we reached 139/4 off our 20 overs. The total seemed a bit below par, but on a difficult wicket, it was one that would surely ask some questions of Pakistan.
There was a sense of déjà vu as Pakistan opened up, with the early overs again characterised by some accurate bowling and frustrated opening batsmen. Sri Lanka’s seamers made excellent use of the slower ball, but could not quite get that much-needed early wicket. It was the introduction of the Ajantha Mendis that forced the breakthrough, with the spinner bowling the dangerous Imran Nazir with the last ball of the 6th over. Hafeez and Nasir Jamshed then looked comfortable while consolidating, and at 55/1 off 9 overs, the chase was well in their control. Angelo Mathews was the man who provided Sri Lanka with some decisive and timely inspiration. The all-rounder first winkled out Nasir Jamshed lbw, though it must be said that Jamshed was on the wrong-end of a poor decision from umpire Rod Tucker. Pakistan’s misery was compounded three balls later, when Kamran Akmal spooned a catch to Mahela, foxed by a superb Mathews off-cutter. Angelo’s good work was backed up in the next over, when Rangana Herath bowled a peach of ball to crash into the timbers of Shoaib Malik. Herath’s selection was a point of discussion before the game, as he displaced the exciting teenage mystery spinner Akila Dananjaya, but the veteran fully repaid the trust placed in him. At this stage, with Pakistan 64/4 off 11 overs, Sri Lanka had the upper-hand. This could have turned into genuine dominance in the 12th over, but Lasith Malinga dropped an easy chance off the well-set Hafeez. For seasoned cricket fans, this moment smelt like a turning-point, and Lankan fans the world over were surely dismayed by this potentially costly error.
The tension grew as Hafeez looked all set to capitalise on this chance, belting a few boundaries to put Pakistan firmly back in touch. The required run rate for Pakistan was never colossal, and joined by Umar Akmal, Hafeez whittled the equation down to a very manageable 49 runs needed off the last 36 balls. At this juncture, when Sri Lanka needed a hero, it was the recalled Herath who put his hand up to be counted. A brainfreeze from the Pakistani skipper saw him stumped by Sangakkara, before Shahid “Boom Boom” Afridi was bowled off his first ball, to round off a disappointing tournament for the man so many Pakistani supporters revere. The double strike left Pakistan at 92/6 off 15 and put Sri Lanka back in charge, and though Akmal and Sohail Tanvir struck a few blows, some thrifty bowling from Mendis and Malinga snuffed out any chance of a late comeback, and left Nuwan Kulasekara with 23 to defend off the last over, a task he accomplished with ease. Pakistan finished on 123/7 off their 20 overs, which meant a 17 run victory for Sri Lanka.
Despite the apparent comfort in the margin of victory, the game was undeniably a rollercoaster of emotions. Pakistan put up a great fight, and they can leave the tournament with their heads held high. The bowlers in particular were magnificent, and as an attack they are unlucky to be eliminated. Sri Lanka were far from perfect with the bat, but showed plenty of grit and determination in trying conditions. Our bowlers continued their impressive tournament, and, with the exception of Malinga, we also maintained very high standards in the field. It remains to be seen who Sri Lanka will face in the final, but there are grounds for cautious optimism that our unorthodox attack, particularly the spinners, may enjoy a showdown with whoever progresses, be it Australia or West Indies. Sri Lankan fans have suffered in finals during the last 5 years, losing the 50 over World Cup in 2007 and 2011, and also the World T20 in 2009. True success has eluded us since March 17th 1996, and one can only hope that Sunday is the day that we finally shatter the bridesmaid tag and claim a major trophy once more. The long-term service of Mahela, Sangakkara and Dilshan deserve a taste of victory as their careers enter their twilight, and the nation will be behind them as they fight for their country. Ladies and gentlemen, we are almost there. Keep your fingers crossed, and think of Sri Lanka!