Sri Lanka made three changes to their line up, but Angelo Mathews’s men forgot on Monday night that there is no substitute for uncluttered minds in international cricket.
After having lost their first Asia Cup Group B match to Bangladesh in an embarrassing fashion, Sri Lanka needed to put their best foot forward in their do-or-die clash against the talented Afghanistan.
But their comical running between the wickets and lack of composure in the middle overs against the superb Afghan bowlers saw their survival hopes go up in flames.
And Afghanistan, backed by their vociferous, flag-waving fans, marched into cricketing history with a thumping 91-run win over five-time Asia Cup champions Sri Lanka – their first win over the island nation in three attempts in one-day cricket.
Of course, it was never going to be easy for Sri Lanka once Afghanistan put up a challenging total of 249 all out after opting to bat on a slow surface at the Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
The writing was on the wall for Sri Lanka after they lost their first wicket in the first over when Kusal Mendis fell to the gifted 17-year-old off spinner Mujeeb ur Rahman.
If not for Upul Tharanga (36, 64 balls, 3 fours), Sri Lanka’s total — 158 in 41.2 overs — could have been more embarrassing.
With their seventh straight one-day defeat in UAE since 2017, Sri Lanka will go back home without any clarity about their best team – a team that can actually stand their ground when the World Cup starts next year.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, will now take on Bangladesh in a battle for the Group B top spot in the same stadium on Thursday.
Earlier, Thisara Perera’s first five-wicket haul since 2012 couldn’t prevent the gusty Afghanistan from putting up a spirited show with the bat.
The Afghans were magnificent after their skipper Mohammad Asghar Khan decided to bat.
Even when Thisara bowled No 11 Mujeeb – the last of his three victims in the last over — with a perfect yorker to complete his fourth five-wicket haul in the final delivery of the innings, the Afghan spectators were singing and dancing in the stands.
It was as if they knew their team had already done enough to reach the Super Four.
With the sun beating down on the players in the afternoon, it’s the Afghanistan openers — Mohammad Shahzad and Insanullah Janat — that turned up the heat on Mathews’s beleaguered team.
Afghanistan’s top-order flourished, but none shone brighter than Rahmat Shah (72, 90 balls, five fours) who hit his 12th half century in one-day cricket.
The secret to Afghanistan’s batting success on Monday was in their opening partnership.
Shahzad (34, 47 balls, 4 fours, 1 six) and Insanullah (45, 65 balls, 6 fours) handled Sri Lanka’s best bowler Lasith Malinga remarkably well.
The two openers were not afraid of playing their shots and their 57-run first wicket partnership in 11.4 overs gave Afghanistan the start they needed.
But off spinner Akila Dananjaya, who missed Sri Lanka’s first match in the tournament to attend the birth of his son, sent back the Afghan openers with two lbw decisions.
Captain Asghar then fell to Shehan Jayasuriya, but Rahmat was defiant in the middle overs and he found the perfect partner in Hasmatullah Shaidi (37, 52 balls, 2 fours).
The two middle-order batsmen refused to go for the jugular.
Instead, they concentrated on picking the singles and turning the ones into twos cleverly against the tiring Sri Lankan fielders.
Their 80-run partnership for the fourth wicket was finally broken when Rehmat fell to Dushmantha Chameera in the 42nd over.
The Sri Lankan bowlers then kept the pressure on the Afghan lower-order by taking wickets at regular intervals, but the newest Test-playing country still managed to end their innings on a high.
M Shahzad lbw b Dananjaya 34
I Janat lbw b Dananjaya 45
R Shah c T Perera b Chameera 72
A Afghan lbw b Jayasuriya 1
H Shahidi b T. Perera 37
M Nabi c T. Perera b Malinga 15
N Zadran b T. Perera 12
G Naib c Dananjaya b T. Perera 4
R Khan b T. Perera 13
Aftab Alam not out 7
Mujeeb Ur Rahman b T. Perera 0
Extras: (lb 2, w 7) 9
Total: (all out; 50 overs) 249
Fall: 1-57, 2-107, 3-110, 4-190, 5-203, 6-222, 7-227, 8-249, 9-249
Bowling: Malinga 10-0-66-1 (3w), Chameera 10-2-43-1 (1w), T. Perera 9-0-55-5, Dananjaya 10-0-39-2 (3w), D. de Silva 5-0-22-0, Jayasuriya 6-0-22-1.
B Mendis lbw b Mujeeb 0
W Tharanga c Asghar b Gulbadin 36
D de Silva run out (sub Samiullah/Shahzad) 23
M Perera b Rashid Khan 17
A Mathews c Rashid Khan b Nabi 22
G Jayasuriya run out (Rashid/Mujeeb) 14
N Perera b Gulbadin Naib 28
M Shanaka b Mujeeb 0
A Dananjaya b Nabi 2
S Malinga lbw Rashid Khan 1
P Chameera not out 2
> Extras: (b 2, lb 5, w 6) 13
> Total: (41.2 Overs, All out) 158
> Fall: 1-0, 2-54, 3-86, 4-88, 5-108, 6-143, 7-144, 8-153, 9-156, 10-158
> Bowling: Mujeeb Ur Rahman 9-1-32-2; Aftab Alam 7-0-34-0; Gulbadin Naib 8-0-29-2; Mohammad Nabi 10-1-30-2; Rashid Khan 7.2-0-26-2