A score of over 300 used to be safe in Sri Lanka. Before Friday, chasing sides had attempted to run down scores of over 300 on 32 occasions, and failed every time. Now, in the space of a week, two such scores have been hunted down with ease - Sri Lanka today overhauling Zimbabwe's 310 for 8 with eight wickets in hand and 16 balls remaining, without ever really appearing to extend themselves.
Leading the pursuit today were Niroshan Dickwella and Danushka Gunathilaka - two first-time centurions - who, in a searing opening partnership that yielded 229 runs, left Sri Lanka in such an ascendant state that the remaining 82 runs almost seemed a formality.
Dickwella, forever slinking around his crease, scored well over half his runs behind the wicket, playing sweeps, cuts, dabs and scoops aplenty. Gunathilaka, meanwhile, stood tall in his crease, and played an array of regal drives and disdainful pulls. Having trailed Dickwella for much of the innings, he would finish with 116 runs off 111 balls. Dickwella made 102 off 116 deliveries. Upul Tharanga and Kusal Mendis saw the chase home with little drama - Tharanga making 44 not out, to go with his two unbeaten fifties previously in the series.
That the hosts were chasing so many was thanks to a rollicking fifth ODI century from Hamilton Masakadza, which was followed by a rapid finish from Sikandar Raza and Peter Moor during a Zimbabwe innings in which even Lasith Malinga found himself besieged. Masakadza's 127-run second-wicket stand with Tarisai Musakanda - playing this match in place of Ryan Burl, who was admitted to hospital after aggravating a food allergy - formed the spine of Zimbabwe's innings, with Sean Williams also making a handy contribution.
Zimbabwe's own bowlers would soon themselves falter, thanks to the challenges of playing at this venue. Not only did the pitch offer little for seamers, such turn as it afforded spinners was slow and unthreatening, while Hambantota's lively crosswind complicated their quarry further. It also did not help that Zimbabwe dropped four catches, the costliest of which was the grassing of Dickwella at point, off the bowling of Williams, when the batsman had been on 64.
Neither team's bowlers emerged with much credit. Malcolm Waller was Zimbabwe's best - his tidy offspin accounting for the partnership-breaking wicket of Dickwella. Asela Gunaratne had earlier returned 2 for 53 from 10 overs, which turned out to be the best figures in the game. Malinga's figures were blown out by a 17-run final over, and he ended with 1 for 71 off nine overs. Lakshan Sandakan's 1 for 73 off ten did not make for pretty reading either.
Dickwella and Gunathilaka were immediately belligerent. Dickwella slapped the first ball of the innings - delivered by Carl Mumba - behind point for four, before Gunathilaka cracked two fours apiece off Mumba and Chatara in the second and third overs. It was a track on which very little sideways movement could be gleaned, and the bounce could be completely trusted. After five overs, Sri Lanka were flying, at 36 for none. After 10, with 11 fours between the openers, they were 69 for none. After 15 overs, they were 101… and well… you get the idea - the chase was almost velvet-smooth.
The only major hiccups were in Williams' first over. Dickwella reverse-swept a ball straight to point, who dropped it, before Gunathilaka briefly left his crease only for Peter Moor to fumble the ball and miss a very difficult stumping chance. But neither batsman appeared flustered at any stage. Dickwella got to his hundred in the 33rd over, and Gunathilaka in the 36th. They were out within six balls of each other, but the chase would pass to good hands.
Earlier, Masakadza had also been domineering from the outset, establishing a strike rate of better than 100 in the Powerplay, and maintaining it throughout. Both he and Musakanda appeared at ease during their big second-wicket stand. Sri Lanka's bowlers raised a few lbw appeals, but they largely came against the run of play, rather than as a result of sustained pressure. Musakanda did not advance quite as quickly as Masakadza, but still received enough loose deliveries to stroke into a favoured legside. Masakadza, meanwhile, hit his first fifty off 47 balls, then sped up, needing only 36 further deliveries to move into triple figures.
Wanidu Hasaranga and Gunaratne struck through the middle overs to keep Zimbabwe in check, but they batted deep enough to prosper in the slog overs nonetheless. Raza and Moor hit twenties to plunder 47 off the last four overs, but even a Zimbabwe innings as good as this could not prevent Sri Lanka from taking a 2-1 lead in the series.
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