Never say Sri Lanka is going up against fiery Pakistan in the title fight

Call it a climax at the right time and Sri Lanka got it just right. The five-time Asia Cup winners (all in 50-over format) have won their last four games in impressive style, three of them in the overtaking final, and will emerge favorites to lift the 2022 Asia Cup title against Pakistan in Sunday’s final at the Dubai International Stadium.

From a narrow Asian Cup elimination to a thrilling win over Bangladesh in their final Group B game, Sri Lanka got most of it right and consistently gave themselves a chance to get their hands on the coveted trophy on Sunday night .

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Sri Lanka entered the Asian Cup this calendar year with just two wins from 11 games. Not many thought Lanka had a chance of reaching the finals, especially after their unfavorable start losing to Afghanistan after being knocked out for 105. However, they rallied brilliantly to win their next four games and chased brilliantly in three of them, making it easy for Pakistan in Friday’s final Super Four game, which was a dress rehearsal of sorts for Sunday’s final.

Sri Lanka is now a strong favorite to reach the final. Their batsmen raised their hands chasing totals in excess of 170 and the job was brilliantly completed by their captain Dasun Shanaka. The experience of Kusal Mendis, the rise of Pathum Nissanka as a T20 player, the rise of Shanaka as a finisher and the supporting role of Bhanuka Rajapaksa have worked wonders for Sri Lanka in this tournament.

As Rajapaksa said recently, it was important for Sri Lankan cricket to do well and put smiles on the faces of their compatriots as the island nation is facing a major economic crisis and is seeking international loans from all sides to get through the difficult times.

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Sri Lanka, the tournament hosts, have their bowlers to complement their batsmen, with off-spinner Maheesh Theekshana not afraid to bowl on the power play and control the flow of the opposition’s runs with its variations including the carrom ball. This allows leg spinner Wanindu Hasaranga to roll in the mid and end overs, putting pressure on the opponent.

In the final, the Sri Lankan batsmen meet the fiery Pakistani bowlers. The unpredictable side of Pakistan will do their best and try to win their third title at this cup.

Their bowling looks superior in both pace and spin, with Naseem Shah, Haris Rauf and Mohammad Hasnain showing what they’re capable of, picking up a total of 15 wickets so far and from leg spinner Shadab Khan and the left arm is skilfully supported by spinner Mohammad Nawaz, who surprisingly is the second-highest wicket-taker of the tournament with eight wickets behind India’s Bhuvneshwar Kumar (11).

Nawaz is known for that 42-of-20 whirlwind that was India’s first big hit in the Super Four phase. He has quietly gone about his business of taking wickets, with an impressive save rate of 6.05 in the tournament.

Shadab has emerged as a capable all-rounder, coming in lower mid-range and hitting useful runs with big hits that come easily to him and winning crucial wickets with an even better economic rate of 5.79. Anything under 6 and over in T20Is simply has to be outstanding, and Khan will make the crucial connection with both the racquet and the ball and make the difference between his team’s victory and defeat.

Of concern for Pakistan is the form of their captain Babar Azam. With 10, 9, 14, 0 and 30 points, Azam has fallen from the world’s first T20I batsman at the start of the Asian Cup to previous second place. His opening partner and wicket-keeper Mohammad Rizwan has eclipsed him from that position with a string of consistent results and is the second-highest run-getter in the tournament with 226 runs behind India’s Virat Kohli (276).

Sunday could be just the right time for Azam to get back in shape. How he will cope with the Sri Lankan Spin twins is awaited with suspense.

Sri Lanka are also ahead of Pakistan in recent head-to-head meetings, winning their four previous head-to-head meetings as of October 2019. That includes Friday’s final Super Four match, which Sri Lanka won by three wickets and three overs to spare.

As Pakistan coach Saqlain Mushtaq said on Friday: “Sri Lanka will bring confidence to the final. We will bring passion and insights.”

Pakistan captain Babar Azam said: “Being a captain leading a team in a final is exciting. We are now just one step away from our goal of winning the cup. Every captain and team dreams of winning the cup. As a team, our goal is to perform well and win the tournament.

“Looking back at this tournament we had some great games and some tough fights. We’ve seen some great performances and various players have shone and won the Player of the Match award.

“When building a team, it’s great for us that different players have stood up when it mattered and helped the team win games. That is important to me as captain and paves the way for future success for the team.”

Azam’s Sri Lankan counterpart Shanaka said, “As a team we are very much looking forward to contesting the final. Pakistan are a very good team. All games were exciting and we are looking forward to the final. That was one of the best Asia Cups we’ve ever had.”

Sri Lanka and Pakistan have faced each other in the Asian Cup finals three times, with the Lankans winning in 1986 and 2014 while Pakistan won in 2000. Sri Lanka have been runners-up six times in past Asia Cup editions. With five titles, Sri Lanka are the only team with maximum participation in the finals, this year 12th in 15 competitions.

All four of Sri Lanka’s victories in this tournament followed winning the draw. The spin of the coin has become a huge factor in this competition, particularly in Dubai where six of the eight games played at this venue so far have been won by teams who have chosen to chase. Only India, challenged by Hong Kong to bat and then opting to bat Afghanistan first to challenge itself, won the defense totals.

Sunday could be another game decided by the draw. Mushtaq decided to give the toss the least amount of importance and instead focus on what his team needed to do, which was to play well with both the stick and the ball. He said: “If you want to be champions, don’t think or talk about the throw. We’re not talking about the throw. If you want to be a champion, you have to be a champion in the first innings and also in the second innings. We’re pretty confident.”

India may not be in the final, but the two teams that performed best in this tournament have earned their place in the title round.

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