Bhanuka Rajapaksa and Wanindu Hasaranga have become household names in recent times, partly because of what they have accomplished for Sri Lanka but largely due to their exploits in the Indian Premier League (IPL). While Rajapaksa featured for the Punjab Kings in IPL 2022, Hasaranga donned the Royal Challengers Bangalore red, with both enjoying highly successful seasons.
Thus, both were expected to play a massive role for Sri Lanka at the Asia Cup. Not just because their skill-set is unrivalled but also because of the experience they brought to the fore. And on Sunday, with a million eyeballs gazing at how Sri Lanka would react to pressure, both of them emerged from the rubble unscathed.
There were countless occasions when Pakistan put Sri Lanka under strife in the final. The first of those came in the opening over when Naseem Shah sent Kusal Mendis’ off stump flying. Pathum Nissanka followed suit soon after, with Danushka Gunathilaka also biting the dust in the sixth over.
At one stage, Sri Lanka found themselves staring down the barrel at 58/5. Rajapaksa was still around and he had Hasaranga for company. Yet, considering how their batting unit had excelled up until the final, this was a bitter pill to swallow.
Most teams, and most players would have wilted under the weight of expectations. This was, lest we forget, the first time Sri Lanka had made the Asia Cup final since 2014. And here they were, trying their utmost to make that seem a happy anomaly rather than a promising sign of things to come.
Hasaranga and Rajapaksa were superb against Pakistan
But Hasaranga and Rajapaksa had other ideas. For those unaware, Rajapaksa is a free-flowing batter by nature and rarely allows bowlers to settle. He has a vast array of strokes and can attack any type of bowling. On Sunday, though, he decided to bide his time. He opted to assess his options and wait – something that Rajapaksa is not really associated with, but something that simply needed to be done.
This game-awareness, in many ways, is a product of the IPL. At the Punjab Kings, the left-handed batter was usually given the license to thrill. The pressure situations, however, also teach you how to change tack when necessary – a learning he used to great effect against Pakistan on Sunday.
Three of his first four boundaries came in the third-man region, which for a batter usually very powerful down the ground, was a refreshing change. The other boundary, as you might have guessed by now, was a crisp lofted extra cover drive off Shadab Khan.
Of the 71 runs that he scored against Pakistan, only 59.1% came in boundaries. That might not be a bad tally for a lot of batters but for Rajapaksa, who has, throughout his T20 career, scored 63.17% of runs in boundaries, it was a refreshing tweak in approach. It was an adjustment that was perhaps borne out of the situation. However, it was also a modification that he was able to make because he was confident in his abilities – confident that he will be able to tide over this tough period and cash in when the time is right.
And he did. Towards the end of the innings, he unfurled his entire repertoire of strokes. Sixes were launched over backward square leg and extra cover. An ambitious ramp off Naseem Shah came out too and the powerful strokes down the ground increasingly became a feature.
While Rajapaksa was alternating beautifully between the different batting gears he is blessed with, Hasaranga grabbed the bull by the horns. He took apart the Pakistan bowling unit, all while proclaiming that he and Sri Lanka owned the stage. His batting in the past few months has not fetched him as many rewards as it did at the start of his career. If you were to watch Hasaranga on Sunday, though, you would never have known.
Hasaranga then returned to produce a magnificent 17th over, which included three prized scalps to turn the game firmly in Sri Lanka’s favour. Maheesh Theekshana, another Sri Lankan who plays for the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL, held his own too, only conceding 25 runs from four overs.
Apart from being genuine match-winners, the other thread that ties up Hasaranga and Rajapaksa is their time in the IPL. This competition, apart from helping Indian domestic talent come to the fore, is also very fruitful for overseas stars who might usually not get as much of a platform to test themselves against the best.
They do so for two months, wrapped up in a bio-bubble and when cricket is the sole underlying theme. And when they don the Sri Lankan colours, they not only illustrate how to navigate their way out of tricky terrains, they lead the charge.
The incredible aspect about Sri Lanka’s Asia Cup victory has been how different players have stood up at different junctures. But everyone associated with Sri Lankan cricket will tell you that when push came to shove, like it did in the summit clash on Sunday, their experienced stars came through.
When Sri Lanka were 58/5, they would have been forgiven to think about their horror defeat to Afghanistan earlier in the tournament. That was also the only time they had batted first at this Asia Cup. The stage was set for everything to unravel and for everyone to dub Sri Lanka one-trick ponies and lucky entrants in the final.
Hasaranga and Rajapaksa, though, had other ideas. It was not just down to skill (both of them possess that in abundance anyway). But it was also about how they soaked up the pressure and always backed themselves to get the job done. They used their experience in the IPL to ace the big occasion and that, considering a T20 World Cup is also on the horizon, should make the Sri Lankan faithful drool over what this team could go on to achieve.