ABU DHABI (Monitoring Desk): Babar Azam’s seventh ODI hundred combined with a sublime all-round performance from Shadab Khan saw a listless Sri Lanka slump to their ninth consecutive ODI defeat. They lost by 32 runs, but the margin would have been much greater but for a fighting hundred by Sri Lankan captain Upul Tharanga; no one else scored more than 22. Sri Lanka were on top in the first quarter of the match, having reduced Pakistan to 101 for 6, before Azam and Shadab put together a gritty 109-run stand to propel Pakistan to 219.
It was a particularly grave indictment on Sri Lanka’s batting display that they were in the chase for most of their innings, despite what was, by modern standards, a modest target. The batsmen didn’t find many answers to the relentlessly accurate spin trio of Shadab, Mohammad Hafeez, and Shoaib Malik, on a surface on which runs were especially hard to come by. Tharanga was handed at least four chances during the course of his hundred. The chasm between the sides appeared so wide that Pakistan could afford to be that generous and still bowl Sri Lanka out for 187.
With Sri Lanka’s current ODI plight and Pakistan’s bowling prowess, Sri Lanka weren’t expected to make light work of the chase on a slow surface. Sri Lanka lost two early wickets – Niroshan Dickwella and Kusal Mendis – and consumed plenty of dot balls in attempting to absorb the pressure, as if surviving a tricky Test match session. Tharanga and Lahiru Thirimanne added a scratchy 40 runs off 72 balls, and when the latter was eventually dismissed, the asking rate had already climbed to close to 5.50.
The rut set in straight after as the spinners knocked the wind out of the chase. Five wickets fell off the next 33 balls. Shadab took a wicket in each of his first three overs, getting prodigious turn with both his legbreak and googly.
Jeffrey Vandersay was involved in a 76-run, eighth-wicket stand with Tharanga, who found his range towards the close of the game, looming as the last line of defence against Pakistan taking a 2-0 lead in the series. Shadab was also taken for boundaries and his immaculate length started to waver as Sri Lanka narrowed the gap between runs required and balls remaining.
Pakistan could have established a near-impregnable position far earlier had they been less charitable in the field. Tharanga had lived a charmed life; he was dropped three times. That wasn’t the end of his fortune either, he was also given out caught before being overturned on review, and survived another review for lbw. He was trapped right in front later in his innings, but Pakistan ran out of reviews.
As the asking rate came down and Sarfraz began to panic, berating his players almost every delivery, Pakistan broke through with 51 runs still to get, Vandersay holing out at deep square off a Rumman Raees slower ball. Lakmal was then run-out following a mix-up with Tharanga. It was fitting, in this frenetic contest, that the game ended via another run-out as Tharanga became the first Sri Lankan batsman to carry his bat through.
The first innings had effectively boiled down to a contest between Sri Lanka and Azam after another top-order collapse. Ahmed Shehzad poked and scratched around while Fakhar Zaman also struggled for timing. Zaman was the first to go, Lahiru Gamage angling the ball across Zaman, whose outside edge flew to a wide slip. Shehzad joined him three overs later, driving a wide delivery from Suranga Lakmal straight to point.
Lakmal and Gamage were once again terrific with the new ball, getting sufficient movement. Mohammad Hafeez broke the shackles with a glorious six back over Gamage’s head, but edged the next ball – gently seaming away – to the keeper.
As Malik and Imad Wasim also fell cheaply, Azam continued to show signs of his quality, providing further evidence of his quality, and composure as a batsman. He held the innings together instead of letting the pressure of the situation get to him. Seemingly oblivious to the collapse around him, he guided the lower order, establishing a magnificent, match-changing partnership with Shadab.
There were no slog overs, no pinch hitting. Just mature, calm batsmanship by a pair whose combined age is less than that of recently-retired skipper Misbah-ul-Haq. The singles came freely and easily, and twos were routinely pinched. If the opportunity presented itself, the occasional boundary was struck, too, but not if a risk had to be taken.
Not until the first ball of the final over, anyway, when Azam tried to clear long-on with a tired heave. His job had been done, and he left the bowlers with enough room to do theirs. That, usually, is a winning strategy for Pakistan, and so it proved yet again.