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Shanaka believes winning the Asia Cup will bring about “the transformation” Sri Lanka cricket needs

Man of the moment says, “Hope we put a smile on our people’s faces.” Rajapaksa

The economic crisis has formed the backdrop for much of Sri Lanka’s Asia Cup campaign. But their brand of cricket and some landmark wins – like the ODI series triumph over Australia at home and now the Asia Cup title – have come as a balm. On Sunday, in fact, the Sri Lanka women’s team were crowned Asian netball champions. For a people desperately seeking solace through sporting glory, this was a night to remember.

For the cricketers, it was not just that they won, but the manner in which they managed to turn the screws. Written off at the halfway mark of their innings, with 67 for 5 on the board, Sri Lanka launched a sensational comeback courtesy Bhanuka Rajapaksa and Wanindu Hasaranga. The pair put on 58 off just 30 balls, which eventually pushed them to 170 for 6, which proved 23 too many for Pakistan.

After the victory, Rajapaksa said, “We always wanted to show the world that, a few decades ago, we had aggression on our side, and we wanted to reproduce those moments [again] as a unit.” “We want to maintain this momentum going into the World Cup. All Sri Lankans are going through a difficult period right now because of the issue at home, but we hope that we have managed to make some of them smile. The entire country has been waiting for this for a very long time.”

Smiling beside Rajapaksa was his captain, Dasun Shanaka. In his hour of glory as a leader, he heaped praise on the team for responding so well to some tough backroom words after being ambushed by Afghanistan on the opening night.

We had a serious conversation following that first defeat, Shanaka admitted. “All the players stood up when it came to using our talent in game situations even though we were aware of it. The atmosphere our team and coaching staff established has been successful.”

While doing so, Shanaka also addressed the supporters with a message. It came off as more of a request. Trust in our cricketers, he said. “There are many negative things going around. They should live their lives to the fullest as cricketers and refrain from spreading negativity. They also lead separate lives. Maintaining faith is crucial. I do everything I can as a captain to instil confidence in the guys. More than that is all I can ask.”

Those weren’t empty words. Shanaka’s motivational skills were tested at different times in the final. In the very first over of their defence, a nervous Dilshan Madushanka conceded nine runs without bowling a single legitimate delivery, with a free hit to follow.

At one point, even as the wicketkeeper and several fielders ran to Madushanka with suggestions, it needed a polite hand gesture from Shanaka and some words for the players to disperse and allow the nervous bowler some breathing space. He held his composure thereafter to concede just three more in the over.

Madhushanka has been one of their standout bowlers in the competition. The 21-year-old left-arm swing bowler is just six T20Is old, but has pace, and the ability to curve the ball back in late to the right-hand batters. His new-ball partner Pramod Madushan isn’t as young at 28, but is new too – Sunday was just his second T20I. But, under pressure, Madushan, skiddy and with the ability to hit the deck hard, dismissed Babar Azam and Fakhar Zaman off consecutive deliveries to dent Pakistan early.

If it wasn’t for injuries to Kasun Rajitha and Dushmantha Chameera, it’s possible this unlikely pairing may not have shared the new ball; perhaps they may not even played at all.

“Madushan brings promise, skill and maturity,” Shanaka said. “We knew him from the start of his domestic career, but we had to take a risk to get the rewards. Madushan’s skills were there [to see] and he’s got a good career ahead. Glad he delivered in just his second game; glad he rewarded us for the risk we have taken [in picking him].”