Asia Cup 2022: Rajapaksa leads Sri Lanka’s renaissance as they claim win over Pakistan

Underdogs return to top of continental cricket with remarkable victory at Dubai International Stadium

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Bhanuka Rajapaksa: remember the name. For Sri Lankans, it is one that is impossible to forget. This time, though, it brought unbridled joy to a country craving it.

Sri Lanka are back on top of continental cricket. They returned to the winner’s circle at the Asia Cup for the first time since 2014 after stunning Pakistan with a 23-run win in Sunday night’s final in Dubai.

The last time they won it, their side boasted household names like Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Angelo Mathews, and Lasith Malinga.

In the time since, all those greats have ebbed away. The team have suffered whitewashes. Their cricket has been riven by corruption scandals, not to mention all the ordeals faced beyond sport.

Now, they have new heroes to celebrate. They have names like Pramod Madushan, Dasun Shanaka, Maheesh Theekshana and, of course, Rajapaksa. Not all as recognisable as those who went before, but champions, all.

Not that it seemed certain to be the case all the way through the final. First off, Pakistan won the toss. Then they started like a whirlwind.

Shaheen Afridi’s absence cast a pall over the start of this competition for Pakistan, but in truth his absence has just led to other stars being made.

A pace attack with him in would have been a cheat mode. As it is, Naseem Shah has had the chance to make a name for himself in the shortest format.

Not just as a fast bowler of substance. Nor even as an ice-cool finisher with bat. Rather he has taken Shaheen’s mantle as a first-over box-office smash.

This time around, he nearly prompted the Majlis-style roof to be lifted off Dubai International Stadium with the roar that his third ball elicited.

A 142kmh in-ducker obliterated Kusal Mendis’ stumps. It was acclaimed by some in the commentary box as the ball of the tournament.

It was also the third time in the competition Naseem had dismissed a batter off the first ball they faced – KL Rahul and Mohammed Nabi being the previous two.

It prefaced a blistering start to the game, led by a Pakistan pace attack that was breathing fire.

Haris Rauf pushed the speedgun way past 150 kph. He had in-form opener Pathum Nissanka caught by Babar Azam, then sent Danushka Gunathilaka’s stumps flying.

When Ifthikhar Ahmed and Shadab Khan chipped in with the wickets of Dhananjaya de Silva and Dasun Shanaka respectively, Pakistan appeared to be home and hosed. Halfway through their overs, Sri Lanka were 67 for five, and finished.

Not that anyone told Rajapaksa. Over the space of the next 10 overs, he oversaw the addition of 103 more runs, with just one extra wicket falling.

The burly left-hander muscled his side to 170, making 71 not out himself, and sharing in a stand of 58 for the fifth wicket with Wanindu Hasaranga, plus 54 for the next with Chamika Karunaratne.

The fact he hit the last two balls of the innings for four then six meant the Sri Lankans finished on a high. That quickly dissipated, though.

Where Naseem’s first over had been a dream, around an hour and a half later, Dilshan Madushanka’s for Sri Lanka was a nightmare.

The young left-armer has caught the eye with his excellence this tournament, most notably when he fired out Virat Kohli in the win over India.

This, though, was cringeworthy. None of the first five deliveries he sent down was a legitimate one. By that stage, Pakistan’s score read: nine for no loss of 0.0 overs.

It needed his almost-namesake to get Sri Lanka back on a firm footing. Madushan, a 28-year-old journeyman medium-pacer, had played just one previous match in this tournament.

It appears he is saved for matches against Pakistan, seeing as his only other outing was their Super 4 encounter with their fellow finalists, two nights earlier.

Despite the low-key billing, he threatened to steal the show in the final, as he took the wickets of Babar, Fakhar Zaman, and Ifthikhar, before later adding the scalp of Naseem Shah.

His incisions opened the gap for Sri Lanka's one real household name to exploit. By the time Hasaranga had taken three wickets with his highly-prized leg-spin in the 17th over, Pakistan were 112 for seven, and their hopes entirely spent.

Updated: September 12, 2022, 4:40 AM