Half-centuries by Aaron Finch and Steve Smith – contrasting in nature, but equally effective – helped Australia end their miserable run in the Sri Lankan tour and win the first One-Day International at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo by three wickets
There was hardly any grass on the wicket and it was expected to get slow as the game progressed. The only bait for the team batting second was the dew factor and that advantage overpowered everything else.
On Sunday (August 21), Smith won the toss and elected to field first. There were a couple of surprising omissions in the Australian rank with Shaun Marsh – centurion in the last Test and Nathan Lyon being left out of the Playing XI.
They came in with a four-pronged pace attack to go with Adam Zampa, the lone spinner. To add some variety, left-armer Travis Head too rolled his arms over for four overs. The team selection was in contrast to what the hosts fielded. Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera were the only seamers in the side to go with six spinners – three offspinners and three left-armers. While the experienced duo of Tillakaratne Dilshan and Thisara Perera made a comeback to the side, they also fielded two debutants – Lakshan Sandakan and Amila Aponso.
Chasing a tricky target of 228, Australia got off to a flying start. Finch set the tone with a six straight down the ground in the first over of the chase. While the right-hander was taking on Sri Lanka’s new ball pair of Angelo Mathews and Tillakaratne Dilshan, David Warner was finding it tough to find the gaps.
In the end, the southpaw tried to be cheeky and guide a Thisara Perera delivery to the third man region, but ended up getting an outside edge to the wicketkeeper.
With Finch hogging majority of the strike in the Powerplay overs, the demons in the pitch weren’t exposed. He raced away to his half-century off the first ball of the 12th over with a sweep towards deep backward square leg. The team total by then was just 65.
Steve Smith was the first one to experience the challenge when Amila Aponso was brought into the attack in the 11th over. The left-arm spinner managed to turn the ball square in the very first over. Smith kept coming down the track to play the ball to the pitch of it but was made to look out of sorts by the vicious turn and bounce. He was hurt on the fingers by a ball that bounced sharply after pitching, leaving him in temporary pain. But the Australian skipper managed to survive.
A couple of times, the ball pitched on the off stump and ended up in the hands of Mathews at first slip, without an edge. After softening the duo with spin for a few overs, Aponso managed to induce the outside edge of Finch’s bat which went to the slip fielder. The on-field officials, unsure about the edge, seeked help from the third umpire before declaring the batsman out.
Matthew Wade was promoted to Number 4, a move that worked in hindsight. The wicketkeeper-batsman showed good application against spin and allowed Smith to settle down while Australia were closing in on the target. They kept a check on their big shots and chose to nudge the ball away for easy singles. Together, they put on a 49-run stand for the third wicket, before the left-hander ended up offering an easy catch to Dilshan at mid wicket.
George Bailey, much like Smith, struggled in the initial period, constantly getting beaten by the turning deliveries. While as much as the cracks helped the hosts, they also ended up conceding 12 wides. The extra runs came as gold in the low-scoring chase.
Even as it seemed that the bowlers were having an upper hand in the contest, Smith and Bailey put on 62 runs off 77 balls to nearly end Sri Lanka’s hopes. However, the skipper’s wicket opened another window of hope for the hosts. Going for a forward defense against Dilruwan Perera, soon after bringing up his 11th ODI half-century, Smith ended up getting an inside edge which substitute fielder Avishka Gunathilaka held on to superbly at forward short leg.
The fielder was back in action three overs later when Lakshan Sandakan managed to get the edge off Moises Henriques’ bat to reduced Australia to 202 for five. For the cost of 20 more runs, Australia lost Bailey and Travis Head as well as the Sri Lankan spinners looked to make a match of very little.
But some easy singles for Mitchell Starc and James Faulkner helped them get over the line with 19 balls to spare.
Earlier in the day, Sri Lanka, opening the innings with Dilshan and Kusal Perera. They lost the former early after he looked to drive away from the body. Starc managed to get the ball to seam back in after pitching and breached the batsman’s defense to shatter his stumps.
Dilshan, who returned to the side following a break during the ODI series against England, looked good in his brief stay. However, the veteran opener brought about his downfall attempting the scoop over his head, an audacious shot which he had made his own. This time, however, the pace on the ball undid his timing as it caught his gloves on the way to his helmet and blobbed above for Smith to take an easy catch at slips.
Kusal Mendis, meanwhile, was living dangerously. A pull in the ninth over went straight to Aaron Finch at fine leg. But the fielder lost the ball against the light of the setting sun and let the ball slip off his hands to give the batsman a reprieve.
In the 18th over, Faulkner nearly had him when he checked his shot at the last moment and the ball fell teasingly short of Bailey at cover. He was living dangerously for quite a bit, before settling down. The pitch that offered a bit of bounce for Starc and Josh Hazlewood early on in the match had become slow.
He survived again in the 20th over when David Warner missed the stumps while attempting a direct hit. Mendis had rushed for a quick single before being asked to return to the crease by Chandimal, who was at the striker’s end. He was half way down the pitch and had no chance to return to his crease when Warner threw the ball.
Chandimal and Mendis ensured that they didn’t try anything extravagant. Taking advantage of the long boundaries, they worked the ball around gaps to be content with easy singles that were on offer. In the context of the partnership, Mendis was the aggressor, while Chandimal displayed a more cautious approach. In 35.1 overs (from 8.3 to 43.4) there were only five boundaries and no sixes by the hosts. Of the five, only one was hit by Chandimal – a sweep shot that went to the ropes splitting the fielders at deep square leg and fine leg, off Adam Zampa in the 28th over.
It was the wicket of Mendis which brought about a mini collapse and handed over the control of the contest to the visitors. Faulkner, who came on to bowl his third spell, struck off the first ball of his spell. Mendis got a top-edge to a short-pitched from around the wicket, giving Finch ample time to run towards mid-wicket and take the catch. The wicket also ended a well-constructed 79-run stand.
Four balls later, Mathews sliced a full pitched delivery to gully, allowing Head to take a superb diving catch and complete a double-wicket maiden over.
With Sri Lanka’s steady charge disturbed, courtesy the third wicket stand, Smith brought Starc back for his third spell in the 31st over. The move paid dividends for Australia as the left-arm pacer struck in the second over of his spell. He foxed Dhananjaya de Silva with a slower delivery as the batsman ended up edging the ball to Bailey at cover. In the process, Starc became the fastest bowler to bag 100 wickets in ODIs.
With three wickets in four overs, Sri Lanka were left reeling at 132 for 5. Even as wickets kept falling from one end, Chandimal was going steady. It was the kind of maturity he has shown ever since Sri Lanka have been on a rebuilding phase following the retirements of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.
Thisara Perera played a scratchy innings, looking to go for the big shots from the very first ball. There were ill-timed shots, there were balls falling short of fielders and there were the edges. Nonetheless, he survived to add a quickfire 14-ball 21.
Meanwhile, Chandimal paced his innings superbly. He ran hard between the wickets even in hot and humid conditions and battled an injury on his ribs to notch up his fifth consecutive ODI half-century on his way to an unbeaten 80. Nonetheless, James Faulkner’s 4 for 38 and Starc’s 3-32 helped Australia restrict the hosts to 227 for 8 in their 50 overs. As it turned out, Chandimal’s efforts just fell short of helping Sri Lanka continue their dominance over the visitors.
Brief Scores: Sri Lanka 227 for 8 (Dinesh Chandimal 80*, Kusal Mendis 67; James Faulkner 4-38, Mitchell Starc 3-32) lost to Australia 228 for 7 (Steve Smith 58, Aaron Finch 56; Dilruwan Perera 3-48, Lakshan Sandakan 2-33) by 3 wickets.