By Srian Obeyesekere
Sri Lanka and Afghanistan face off from comparative firepower evens given the two-sided world cup upsets both teams have staged that would raise the winner’s semi-final hopes in in virtual now or never showdown on Monday at Pune’s MCA International Stadium. The clinical double quick thrashing Sri Lanka handed defending champions England by 8 wickets with 146 balls to spare was clearly of a changed all-round outfit, and despite the injury lay off of their Player of the Match 3-wicket playmaker Lahiru Kumara, it has galvanised the side to top fettle. The measured fighting comeback by the wicket-taking form of veteran all-rounder Angelo Mathews, the Kasun Rajitha stuff with the ball, and largely the upfront form of Sadeera Samarawickarama and opener Pathum Nissanka who smashed unbeaten half centuries off England has muscled up the batting, particularly revolving around Samarawickrama’s No. 4 reliability in the wake of his match winning unbeaten 95 against Netherlands.
However, Sri Lanka will need to guard against complacency against a threatening Afghanistan pace attack where inconsistency among most of the specialist batsmen has been a cause for concern. The inform Mendis will need to check a streak of impetuousness that cost him his wicket early versus England.
Meanwhile, the Lankan bowlers will have to crack a sound Afghanistan batting line-up upfront of the likes of the top three who struck fifties and skipper Hashmatullah Shahidi an unbeaten 48 versus Pakistan chasing down 283.
On the recent past record, Sri Lanka has the edge having won their three clashes including an Asia Cup nail-biter by two runs. But it means nothing on the day given Afghanistan’s current form of giant-sized wins over defending champions England and Pakistan, and their 6-wicket triumph over Sri Lanka when they last met in a warm-up in Indian terrain. That win was rubbed in despite Kusal Mendis’ 158 off 87 blitzkrieg in a 294 total that fell short of the 50 overs by 3.4 overs on Mohammad Nabi’s 4-wicket grab with Afghanistan winning on a revised D/L target of 261 for 4 in 38.1 overs topped by Rahmanullah Gurbaz’ 119 and Rahmat Shah’s 93.
The Lankans, on the other hand, reviving their cup hopes from a slumber to back-to-back wins electrified by the last over England, has certainly hyped up the 30th world cup clash to a decisive showdown as to which of the two would be insulated by the much needed 2 points of staying on course. In that recent surge, comparatively, Afghanistan has a slight edge given the opposition they cracked. The Lankans win over minnows Netherlands though was no mean one having run down a challenging target over a significantly turnaround outfit that provided the first world cup shock downing heavyweight South Africa.
Afghanistan squad: Hashmatullah Shahidi (c), Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Ibrahim Zadran, Riaz Hassan, Rahmat Shah, Najibullah Zadran, Mohammad Nabi, Ikram Alikhil, Azmatullah Omarzai, Rashid Khan, Mujeeb ur Rahman, Noor Ahmad, Fazalhaq Farooqi, Abdul Rahman, Naveen ul Haq
Sri Lanka squad: Kusal Mendis (c), Kusal Perera, Pathum Nissanka, Angelo Mathews, Dushmantha Chameera, Dimuth Karunaratne, Sadeera Samarawickrama, Charith Asalanka, Dhananjaya de Silva, Maheesh Theekshana, Dunith Wellalage, Kasun Rajitha, Dilshan Madushanka, Dushan Hemantha, Chamika Karunaratne