It is close to 1 AM here in India, there is palpable pressure in Colombo at the near-packed Khettarama that the humidity around the ground has been converted into tiny drops of sweat across foreheads.
Zaman Khan, on debut, is loading up. Charith Asalanka is on strike. The equation is rather easy: two runs off one ball. But then, just before the last ball can be released, Pakistan’s skipper Babar Azam wants a long chat.
In join several other Pakistani fielders. Mohammad Rizwan, too, wants a piece of the party. Pakistan want to slow this last delivery out. They want to build the pressure up for Asalanka, they want him to feel the heat. But they don’t know there is a sea of blue behind the gang of green.
One thing unites all the blues. But the game has swung like a fanatic pendulum in the last few minutes. One second, it is agony and the other, joy, and the only certain thing is that the game is uncertain. Freeze and pause.
This is perhaps Pakistan’s biggest game in this tournament and for a good reason. Just the delivery before, somehow, Asalanka swung his bat to tilt the momentum in Sri Lanka’s favour. Zaman has done this day in and day out at the Pakistan Super League (PSL).
But you know the drill.
Aslanka lines up and then goes leg-side for an easy two. In fact, if they wanted to, they could have run four. Babar, who nailed several good decisions in the clash, almost got another one. He had a field set for a particular kind of delivery, but the execution was far from that.
And then, there was the image of the tournament. Asalanka ran towards the non-striker’s end, punching the air in the same frame where Zaman desperately tried to go incognito. Babar, who was in the backdrop of this entire story, was in deep shock.
It was almost like how Mohammed Nawaz had erred against Ravichandran Ashwin in the 2022 T20 World Cup in Melbourne. We all know the rest of the story. On a day like this, it is very easy to talk about how Babar’s captaincy had its own ebbs and flow, how Pakistan’s fielding efforts were far from good, or how Dasun Shanaka’s stumbling form will become a big concern for Sri Lanka.
But this day belonged to three Sri Lankan batters - Kusal Mendis, Sadeera Samarawickrama and Charith Asalanka. Mendis, perhaps, has been the best of the lot, with his sturdiness at No.3 for Sri Lanka, but without the aggression in the middle-overs, Sri Lanka could have well and truly stared at a grim wall.
Not the one they are grinning about right now.
Looking into the finer details is the best possible answer on days like these. If Sri Lanka do look deeply, they will find the pieces of their beating heart sealed in safely - Samarawickrama and Asalanka.
Let’s now trace a little backwards. It usually isn’t advisable to look back when you are flying, but here, you need to pause and reflect. How did we get to this position from where we found ourselves a few years ago? You thought India were the only side which had a No.4 problem? Sri Lanka, too, had one.
Their workhorse, Angelo Mathews, wasn’t working anymore. Their flashy wicketkeeper, Dinesh Chandimal, used to make a return every now and then. But an average of 23.2 wasn’t going to cut corners. Mendis was an evident figure - scoring 255 runs - averaging 42.50, but the fact that the No.3 place was vacant and more ideal for someone like Mendis meant Sri Lanka had to get someone.
The search extended till they ended up with Samarawickrama. Even though the Lanka Premier League (LPL) is ridiculed at every nook and corner, the tournament couldn’t have been more opportune for Sri Lankan cricket, who found Samarawickrama through his consistent display for Jaffna Kings. It was as if their tales were interconnected.
What are the chances that a player clicks on his return to a national team after a hiatus? Almost a gamble, right? In this case, it was that gamble Sri Lanka were ready to take. It was a gamble that they took, and it was June 4, 2023, that changed Sri Lanka’s ODI fortunes - for the good.
Since his comeback this year, Samarawickrama scored 477 runs, averaging 43.36 while striking at 92.80. Some batters could play the long waiting game, but none could time their music to a precision that the right-hander could.
A string of displays - 54, 6, 44, 73, 82, 26, 1, 17*, 19, 54, 3, 93 - showed that he was more than just talent.
Alongside that, whatever the right-hander did was only making him special. The ability to hit spinners, the ability to take the game head-on, the ability to soak the pressure, and, more importantly, the ability to cover up any fielding position in the deep.
It was perhaps a culmination of all of that which has changed Sri Lanka’s fortune. Only five Number fours have scored more than 300 runs in the calendar year, and Samarawickrama’s strike-rate - 93.3 - stands as the third-best amongst the list.
Aiden Markram is an outlier, and Shai Hope’s consistency is unreal. Somewhere between that was Samarawickrama, and on top was Sri Lanka, winning the ICC ODI Qualifier for the 2023 World Cup in India.
Either players tend to prefer spin or like to attack pace. Here, too, the Sri Lankan falls right in between, with the perfect concoction of attacking both kinds of bowling type. Since the start of the year, he averages 48.6 against pace and 46.8 against spin while striking at 100.83 and 85.71, respectively.
In this Asia Cup already, the right-hander has shown that he has the temperament, but the lack of patience against Kuldeep Yadav or Ifthikar Ahmed had cost him his dismissal. But given that he’s only settling in the Sri Lankan squad, the work has just begun.
“We had the game under control, but the loss of wickets took it till the last over. We gave them a chance to come back in the game, but we knew Charith could get us home,” said a relieved Sri Lankan skipper Dasun Shanaka in the post-match presentation.
“Those two wickets fell down, and we were nervous, but with Charith in the middle, we had hope. He's done this in one game against Afghanistan,” Kusal Mendis couldn’t agree more.
What connects the dots? Barring the obvious statement that Sri Lanka were nervous, their fans were biting their nails, and the weather was sweltering hot? Asalanka obviously.
Asalanka isn’t a new kid on the block. He knows that well that he could walk the corners blindfolded. But every now and then, when walking blindfolded, he gets hit very badly on the toes. That’s really how his dismissals are. They are soft. They are perhaps very amateurish, but more often than not, they sting for quite some time.
He knew it. You walk up to him right now and ask him if he feels relieved, and he would utter a big yes. You could see it on his face after the match when he talked to the host broadcasters, Star Sports. But what was more interesting was his thought process.
Two runs off the final ball. There is a chance that one could have gone for the glory hit. Asalanka’s decision-making when it comes to such hits is dicey. But this is perhaps the most pressure under which he has been in his international career thus far. Failing to win a simple run-chase at home only adds to the ridicule.
As much as Zaman is hoping to get his plans right, Asalanka is praying to be a hero. Some heroes don’t wear capes, but they can fly a long mile even then, as the left-hander showed a few seconds after running two.
“Two things was in my mind. I thought he's going to bowl a bouncer, otherwise a yorker. He tried a slower ball,l and it worked for my side. I am very excited, still excited about that. Kusal and Sadeera played really well, they laid the platform,” said Asalanka, who was still trying to process the win.
But then he said, perhaps this is the second-best knock that he has ever played in ODI cricket. However, that wasn’t the most important quote of the night, it was that “I planned to finish the game, that’s my role in the Sri Lankan team.”
It is only a big irony that one team has reached the final of the Asia Cup due to clear plans over roles, and one team has missed out on the final due to the lack of clarity over the same. Sri Lanka are still trying to figure out their own team’s strength and weakness, but on a night like this, when the crowds are backing you with such vigour, you just stand and applaud the efforts of Samarawickrama and Asalanka.
The addition of one has unlocked the real potential of the other. With the ODI World Cup around the corner, Sri Lanka might have just unlocked a part of their potential.