Thirimanne Ton Takes SL To Title

Somewhere between absolute relaxation and intense focus, Lahiru Thirimanne drew strength from a place of zen in the Asia Cup final, stroking 101 from 108 to complete a victory that snapped Sri Lanka's finals jinx. He had help from Mahela Jayawardene, who embellished his reputation as a big-match performer, but it had been a fearsome lone hand from Lasith Malinga that had given most shape to the triumph. His five wickets for 56 deservedly earned him the Man-of-the-Match award on a day when no other Sri Lanka bowler took a wicket.

 

Those contributions proved enough to comfortably overcome Fawad Alam's maiden hundred, which had been borne of astute accumulation as he and Misbah-ul-Haq launched an epic recovery, then completed in a frenzy at the death. That 260 for 5 was eventually achieved was admirable, but Sri Lanka surpassed that score with five wickets in hand and 22 balls remaining. Pakistan may conclude they had been at least 20 runs light. They may also rue errors in the field that saw both Thirimanne and Jayawardene reprieved.

Thirimanne's idol Kumar Sangakkara had been cock of the Asia Cup walk for much of its duration, but in the final, his Padawan eclipsed him twice over. Thirimanne eased past Sangakkara on the tournament run-scorers' list, finishing comfortably atop the table with 279 runs. He also hit a hundred in a tournament final - a feat that has eluded Sangakkara in his 13-year career. Thirimanne would not have opened had Tillakaratne Dilshan been fit for the tournament, but he has now made a forceful case for a long-term place in the top three.

Malinga had largely saved his best work for the close in this tournament, but in his first three menacing overs with the new ball, he had gutted the Pakistan top order, and intimidated the opposition into prolonged reticence. Sharjeel Khan struck him for two spiffing offside boundaries, but Malinga soon swung one in to the left-hander to have him chipping to mid-on. His away-swing to the right-handers got Ahmed Shehzad and Mohammad Hafeez nicking behind in quick succession as well. Shehzad had aimed a punch through cover, Hafeez merely hung his bat out.

Misbah and Fawad were joined at 18 for 3, but slaves to a poor situation now, neither ventured the early aggression that might have helped set up a tall score. Pakistan's run-rate was below three until the 22nd over, and increased only in modest increments until the final flourish.

In contrast, Kusal Perera crashed Sri Lanka through the early overs of the chase, wailing on short balls like they owed him money while crunching sweet drives through the covers as well. He grew more selective with his slashes for the final, minimising some of the risks in his game, though the plays-and-misses were not altogether omitted. He made little use of a reprieve on 35, when Sharjeel Khan backpedaled unnecessarily at deep midwicket to tread on the rope, but his 42 off 37 ensured Sri Lanka would not be restrained inside the Powerplay, as Pakistan had been.

Perhaps Kusal could have been more watchful when Saeed Ajmal arrived, but the ball to dismiss him was a stunner. Drawing Kusal out of the crease with a flighted one, delivered wide of the crease from round the wicket, Ajmal had the ball dip and grip, beating Kusal's prod to create an easy stumping. Kumar Sangakkara barely registered the straighter one that thudded into his front pad next ball, replays showing it to be clipping leg stump. Jayawardene got a fizzing doosra for a hat-trick ball, which to his good fortune, would have missed the off stump.

Desperate for runs after a poor tournament, Jayawardene played Ajmal's first spell desperately late, reading intently out of the hand and off the surface, thrusting bat in front of pad to prevent an lbw. He squeezed through that gauntlet, girded somewhat by the sublime late cut that brought his first four, and then began to progress more freely. When he deposited a Shahid Afridi short ball deep into the leg-side stands in the 18th over, the steel in his eyes had returned in force. Typically, he prospered behind square on the off side, scoring almost 40% of his 75 runs there.

Thirimanne had watched Kusal's barrage, and Jayawardene's stutters from the other end, and all the while resisted both over-ambition and the shackles of big-match pressure. Exquisite strokes square of the wicket on either side punctuated a steady beat of singles, as he scored at around a run-a-ball through the middle overs. Umar Akmal had grassed a thick outside edge off him at 36, but the remainder of his progress was as smooth as his strokeplay.

Jayawardene departed after their 156-run partnership had set Sri Lanka in sight of the win, and Thirimanne completed his third ODI hundred in Angelo Mathews' company. Having played several vital hands throughout the tournament, Mathew was fittingly at the crease to strike the winning runs.

Earlier, Misbah had taken stately, dignified singles as the collapse was arrested, while Fawad poked and pilfered them. They scored more freely off the spinners than the fast men - an oddity for this tournament - and perhaps they were glad not to face Ajantha Mendis, who had been dropped for this match, despite having been the Asia Cup's most penetrative bowler before the match.

 

The pair looked ominous in the first over of the Powerplay, from which they plundered 13, but Misbah would fall to Malinga soon after, inspiring a brief return to caution from Fawad. Akmal blasted successive boundaries in the 41st over off Perera to set Pakistan's charge in motion once more, and this time, Fawad joined him in earnest. He was 67 from 106 before another six over long-on began the sequence that would bring him 47 off the next 28. Fawad was dropped for the second time on 92, as de Silva parried a chance over his head at cover off Malinga, and he would move to triple fi gures for the first time in ODIs with an aerial whip over deep midwicket in the 48th over.

Akmal's 59 off 42 was the fire in Pakistan's finish, but they had given away too much ground in the opening exchanges. Malinga completed his second five-wicket haul of the tournament when Akmal top-edged a slog in the final over. (ESPN/Cricinfo)

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