Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Butt century powers Pakistan to easy win

Salman Butt's unbeaten century took Pakistan to an eight-wicket win.

A country starved of international cricket for over six months celebrated with a comprehensive eight-wicket victory over Sri Lanka to take a 1-0 lead in the series, thanks to the efforts of Salman Butt and Khurram Manzoor, who made light work of the 220-run target. Pakistan took full advantage of a jaded Sri Lankan side still circumspect with their form after struggling against weak sides in the recent months.

Sri Lanka were outclassed particularly in the batting and the wounds are taking way too long to heal. Their relatively potent bowling attack struggled to script a turnaround for the team's fortunes as a whole and with the first breakthrough coming as late as the 38th over, it was curtains for Sri Lanka.

Pakistan's discipline, impressive for a team denied of opportunities to play as a unit in the last year, carried them through. Save for a poor start with the ball, there were no other signs of rustiness and the positive body language showed they were happy to be back and performing against stronger opposition.

The start to the chase wasn't electric but watchful. It was a contrasting approach to Sri Lanka's earlier in the day, as the batsmen saw off the opening bowlers, who kept things fairly tight. That the Powerplays cost only 32 and 23 runs respectively, didn't cause too many worries in the Pakistan camp as they chased a below-par score.

The question was whether Pakistan would hold their own against the spinners, and their preparations against Ajantha Mendis seemed to pay off as they played him effectively off the hand. The plan was to get forward and smother the spin as most of Mendis' deliveries appeared to skid through.

Mendis was duly punished for ten runs in his first over, which included two forceful shots by Manzoor square of the wicket on either side. Mahela Jayawardene placed a slip to induce a mistake but Manzoor frequently glided deliveries past that fielder, even bringing up his fifty off one such deft touch.

The consistent Butt carried on his solid touch from the previous year - which he scored 861 runs - with some neat flicks past midwicket off Nuwan Kulasekara. He used his feet well against the spinners, playing down the line and with the turn. When Sanath Jayasuriya was brought on to effect a breakthrough, Butt slogged him for boundaries over midwicket.

His partner wasn't quite so assured at the start though and often made the mistake of shuffling across too far and cramping himself for room to cut. He gained in confidence as the innings progressed but perished at the stroke of the third Powerplay, caught and bowled by Muralitharan, after giving the bowler the charge but failing to get the elevation.

Butt pushed Mendis to deep cover to bring up his tenth ODI fifty. His ability to convert his fifties into bigger scores showed why he was among the top run scorers last year. He was surprisingly out of touch in the Abu Dhabi ODIs against West Indies in November, but today he shrugged off his recent indifferent form when he pushed a single to long-on to bring up his eighth ODI ton and fourth in the last 12 months.

It was a lesson on how to bat on this wicket, which played true to its prediction as a batting track. Sri Lanka's batsmen had the advantage at the toss but floundered after a strong start. The insecurities of the middle-order slowly surfaced as Pakistan clawed back, applied the pressure and restricted Sri Lanka to a total much lower than projected after the early blitz.

The experiment of asking Dilshan to open clicked and his heaves and slashes, effective but not necessarily attractive, showed why Sri Lanka missed him during the Bangladesh ODIs. Umar Gul, fresh from a stint in Australia, found success as early as his first over, getting Dilshan caught and then trapping Jayasuriya in front.

At the end of the 14th over, Sri Lanka had raced ahead with 89 on the board but the dismissals pegged the scoring back to the point from which they never recovered. Kumar Sangakkara swept the spinners, grafted away and was happy pushing the singles - he took 26 in all.

Kapugedera and Jehan Mubarak threw away their wickets, while Sangakkara perished off an upper cut, taken athletically by Butt at point just short of his fifty. In the end, it was Pakistan's first and second change bowlers who did most of the damage, after the hype surrounding Shoaib Akhtar's inclusion.

Sri Lanka don't have any time to regroup, with the second game scheduled for tomorrow. Pakistan will look for a series win and bring more smiles back to the faces of their fans who were given a second chance after India's pull-out.