By Madushka Balasuriya
In a game where tensions threatened to boil over, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh played out one of the most exciting T20 internationals in recent memory as the visitors eventually came out deserved victors to setup a final with India in the Nidahas Trophy.
While the pre-match talk had been of the return of captain Shakib Al Hasan to the side, it was his deputy Mahmudullah - having been stand-in captain till then - who hit an unbeaten 18-ball 43 and a six off the penultimate ball of the innings to complete an unpredictable chase.
Prior to that grandstand finish, emotions had come to a head when the lack of a no-ball call over a second bouncer in the over had caused considerable remonstrations on the part of the Bangladesh batsman. While at the time of filing the exact nature of the incident was unclear, it was deemed serious enough that Shakib seemed to threaten to call his batsman off the field.
At the start of the chase, Akila Dananjaya had struck in the Powerplay to dismiss Liton Das and Sabbir Rahman to give Sri Lanka some early hope in their defence. Tamim Iqbal and Mushfiqur Rahim though would then proceed to put on 64 for the third wicket to once more take a firm grip on proceedings, as Sri Lanka desperately searched for a breakthrough.
That would come eventually in the 13th over as Mushfiqur holed out at cover. His wicket would then see Tamim and then Soumya Sarkar fall in successive overs, as Bangladesh stumbled to 109 for 5 at the 15 over mark.
Mahmudullah and Shakib would then pull Bangladesh in front once more with a brisk 28 run partnership, however when Shakib fell with still 23 left to get off 12 deliveries, Mahmudullah was left to bat with the tail.
Having brought the requirements down to 12 off 6 through some tenacious running, it fast became 12 of 4 when Mustafizur was run out off the second ball of the over. It was at that point play was stopped for a considerable amount time as players of both teams had to be calmed down. Once play resumed it was Mahmudullah that kept his cool, hitting four, two, and six off the next three deliveries to send the Bangladesh fans into raptures.
Apart from those final over theatrics, the game itself was replete with drama. Bangladesh had started the game strong, at one point looking like subjecting the hosts to a humiliating defeat as an inspired spell by Mustafizur Rahman and some expert throttling by a bevy of spinners had seen Sri Lanka crumble to 41 for 5 at the start of the ninth over.
Shakib was the first to strike, having Danushka Gunathilaka caught at long off, in his second over back, while a short one from Mustafizur proved too quick for Kusal Mendis as he pulled gently to midwicket a few overs later.
Things would get worse for the Lankans with a mix-up between Upul Tharanga and Kusal Perera leading to the former being run out, and Dasun Shanaka would follow two balls later - a Mustafizur off cutter catching the outside edge on the way to the keeper. When Mehedy Hasan struck at the start of the ninth over to take out Jeevan Mendis, Sri Lanka were on life support.
Such was Bangladesh’s confidence at that point, that observers were treated to the surreal sight of two slips midway through the 10th over. Scenting an opportunity to virtually guarantee victory, there was also a frivolous review for LBW off Kusal, though replays showed only bat was involved. At the end of 10 overs Sri Lanka were on 53 for 5.
What was to come next however would not have even been dreamt up by the most optimistic of supporters. In one of the great counterattacking pieces of cricket, Kusal and Thisara exhibited admirable restraint, nurdling the ball for frequent ones and twos with the odd calculated hit thrown into the mix as they set about resuscitating the Lankan innings.
With Bangladesh’s spinners proving particularly difficult to get away, they waited on the inevitable introduction of the seamers to accelerate their recovery.The pair took particular liking to Mustafizur who, having picked up two wickets for just four runs in his first two overs, saw his final two ransacked for 35. In one Thisara produced two back-to-back sixes - one of which was among the shots of the tournament lofting a slower one straight back over the bowler for six - while Kusal too lashed consecutive boundaries as Bangladesh hemorrhaged 106 runs in the last 10 overs - 60 of which came off the final five.
Sri Lanka would end on a what was eventually a par score of 159 for seven, and though they had momentum on their side, Mahmudullah ensured there would be no happy ending.
-Pix by Shantha Rathnayake