More than six months after the famous Rajapaksa family was annihilated for the biggest economic and political crisis in Sri Lankan history, a lesser-known Rajapaksa emerged on Sunday to bring tears of joy to the stricken island country.
It’s not yet clear how many people outside of Sri Lanka had actually heard of Bhanuka Rajapaksa until Sunday.
But they will remember his name now after the left-hander staged one of the greatest fightbacks in T20 cricket to inspire the young Sri Lankan team’s unforgettable 23-run victory over Pakistan in the DP World Asia Cup final at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium.
Showing the heart of a gladiator, Rajapaksa (71 not out off 45 balls) joined hands with Wanindu Hasaranga (36 off 21 balls) to launch a brutal counterattack on Pakistan after Babar Azam’s team had reduced them to 58 for five inside eight overs.
When the intimidating Pakistani fast bowlers, led by Haris Rauf (4-0-29-3), started swinging the ball at 90 miles per hour and spinners Shabad Khan (4-0-28-1) and Iftikhar Ahmed (3-0-21-1) kept a tight leash on the batsmen, Sri Lanka’s chances of escaping the clutches of their rivals seemed remote.
But Rajapaksa and Hasaranga decided to fight fire with fire as their 58-run partnership for the fifth wicket turned the match on its head.
Rauf did bring Pakistan back into the contest when he had Hasaranga caught behind in the 15th over.
But Rajapaksa found good support from Chamika Karunaratne (14 not out) as the left-hander ruined the bowling figures of Naseem Shah (4-0-40-1).
The rising fast bowler had earlier given Pakistan a dream start by sending the stumps of Kusal Mendis (0) flying in the first over.
But when he returned for the final over, Rajapaksa was in the zone, shuffling across to send a 90 mph delivery over the back of the wicketkeeper’s head for a four before hitting the last ball over the extra cover boundary as Sri Lanka went from 155 for six in 19 overs to 170 for six at the end of their innings.
Pakistan were in the thick of things despite medium pacer Pramod Madushan Liyanagamage (4/34) dismissing Babar (5) and Fakhar Zaman (0) to be on a hat trick.
Mohammad Rizwan (55 off 49 balls) and Iftikhar Ahmed (32 off 31 balls) kept Pakistan in the hunt with their 71-run partnership for the third wicket.
But Liyanagamage struck again in the 14th over before Hasaranga (4-0-27-3) returned to haunt the Pakistanis with his second straight three-wicket haul against them.
From 92 for two, Pakistan collapsed to 125 for nine, losing seven wickets for just 23 runs before Liyanagamage completed the formality in the final ball by castling Naseem.
“I must thank the crowd, they were supporting us massively. And also to the fans at home, hope we made them proud,” captain Dasun Shanaka said at the post-match presentation.
“We were 100% today, credit to players and coaching staff. I must thank SL cricket board for supporting us and backing us, not to forget the selectors.”
The stunning win completed a remarkable turnaround for Sri Lanka who had suffered an embarrassing defeat to Afghanistan in the opening game of the tournament when they were dismissed for 105 on August 27.
Sunday’s win in the final was their fifth straight victory in the competition which earned them their sixth Asia Cup title.
And they did it despite losing the toss and batting first on a ground that had heavily favoured the chasing team in the tournament.
A young team that had nothing to lose ended up winning the tournament – perhaps their sweetest victory in cricket after the 1996 World Cup triumph
>> Sri Lanka beat Pakistan by 23 runs.
>> Sri Lanka 170-6 in 20 overs (Bhanuka Rajapaksa 71 not out, Wanindu Hasaranga 36, Dhananjaya de Silva 28; Haris Rauf 3/39)
>> Pakistan 147 all out in 20 overs (Mohammad Rizwan 55, Iftikhar Ahmed 32; Pramod Madushan Liyanagamage 4/34, Wanindu Hasaranga 3/27)
>> Man of the match: Bhanuka Rajapaksa
>> Man of the tournament: Wanindu Hasaranga