Sri Lanka skipper Angelo Mathews makes his way back from the press conference at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel in Dhaka yesterday, on the eve of today's Asia Cup final against Pakistan at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur. PHOTO: STAR
From Afghanistan's fighting spirit to Shahid Afridi's brute force, from Bangladesh's heartbreaks to Ajantha Mendis's rendezvous with his yesteryears, an intense last nine days which saw fortunes turn in the blink of an eyelid, has brought us back to the match that started the grand event: an enthralling finale between four-time champions Sri Lanka and reigning champions Pakistan at Mirpur.
In terms of the previous records, it could not have been a more neck-and-neck battle. The teams have so far contested twelve finals, with each of them winning six times. In terms of reaching the Asia Cup final the two teams have met just twice with each winning once. Coincidentally, they seem to face off once every 14 years -- 1986 and 2000 being the previous occasions.
However, going into the finals, Sri Lanka, who are yet to lose a match in Bangladesh since their arrival here, will go into the game slightly ahead. They will be relieved to know that Afridi, who almost single-handedly took Pakistan to the finals, is uncertain for the finals due to a hip strain.
Pakistan for their part will be brimming with confidence after their two wins against India and Bangladesh.
Over the last month, Kumar Sangakkara has been Sri Lanka's get-out-of-jail card. Such has been the effect of Sangakkara that his typical pressure-free, aggressive style of bailing Sri Lanka out has almost become routine, but nevertheless entertaining to watch. His best innings in the tournament was his century against India, which literally stole the Lankans a win. He is currently the highest run-scorer of the tournament with 248 runs at an average of 62.
The other player that Sri Lanka will be depending on is Ajantha Mendis. The bowler, who surprisingly did not play the first game against Pakistan, answered his critics by topping the wickets column of the tournament with nine scalps at an average of just 14. Mendis it seems is going through a re-birth in his career.
Captain Angelo Mathews will be another player to keep an eye on. He has batted well down the order and has a staggering average of 180 in the tournament.
There have been a number of players who have stood up for Pakistan at various moments of the tournament, but none of them have been as important as Afridi. He may have scored only 103 runs in the tournament at a strike rate of close to 170, but it was his cameos against India and Bangladesh that brought them to the finals.
Saeed Ajmal, with eight wickets at an average of 22 has been their best bowler and he will no doubt be in a tug of war against Sangakkara. They also have the calm head of Ahmed Shehzad at the top, who has scored 223 runs in the competition and has been the mainstay of their batting.
While neither side has declared themselves outright favourites, they are however brimming with confidence.
“The team morale is very good. The way we've won the last two games from crunch situations and the way we've been playing cricket recently, the team is very confident. When you play positively, results go in your favour,” said Pakistan skipper Misbahul Haq.
With regards to Afridi, he said, “The kind of impact he's creating on the opposition and his own team, it's really important for us that he play. But these injuries are part and parcel of the game. The replacement won't obviously be like Afridi but at least they can do the job for us. We're very positive about that.”
According to Thisara Perera, the Lankans will be banking on their experience in Bangladesh.
“We want to finish as an unbeaten side in this tournament. We have done really well in the Asia Cup as a batting unit and a bowling unit. This venue is lucky for us, we have won the last five-six ODIs here. Hopefully we'll do really good things in the final,” he said.