SHARJAH // It was difficult to tell who made the finer comeback last night. Sharjah Cricket Stadium, restored to its pulsing, rambunctious best after eight years without serious international cricket.
One thing is for sure: the former could not have happened without the latter. Opening nights, or in this case, reopening nights, need a stellar headline act to make them work. Sharjah was always onto a winner with this one.
Officially, the ground’s exile from top-flight cricket finished a fortnight ago, when these two sides met in a Test match. Yet that was tepid fare in a format which is hardly suited to this part of the world.
And there was no Afridi back then. Pakistan, it is fair to say, did well enough without him in the Test series, but they – and international cricket itself – are an entirely different beast when he is about.
It seems barmy to think that four games ago, he was retired. To say he still has much to give is a ridiculous understatement.
His innings of 75 from 65 deliveries yesterday afternoon was a classic, and made a joke of the way everyone else found scoring so difficult.
The fact it was the lesser half of his extraordinary all-round display is testament to the stunning turnaround he made with the ball.
Yet he might not even have been on the field to do it all. As night fell, and before he had even had the chance to roll his arm over, Afridi injured himself when chasing to stop a boundary.
His left knee jarred awkwardly in the turf, but it was his right knee which required the treatment. To see him limp to the dressing room, bearing in mind what a tough performer he is, suggested something serious must have happened.
Whatever Pakistan’s physiotherapist did while he was off the field, it worked a charm. Not only did he get his side’s star man back on the field, he was able to nurse his way back to the bowling crease.
What followed was typical Afridi. Sri Lanka appeared to be cruising when their old guard, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, had taken them to 155 for three in pursuit of 201 for victory.
“Misbah [-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s captain] was telling us all the time, we just needed to take one wicket,” Afridi said. So the side’s kingpin decided to account for five, instead.
So sure of his fate was he, when the final catch was hoisted up in the direction of Umar Akmal at long-off, Afridi had already pulled a stump from the turf and was wielding it in his trademark celebratory pose, before the catch had even been secured.
“We have world-class bowlers, so we knew we needed one wicket and then they would finish the game,” Misbah said.
Victory means Sri Lanka have nothing left to play for but pride when they head to Abu Dhabi for the final match of the series on Wednesday. Judging by the limp way they capitulated here, they have much to do if they are to escape the UAE with any consolation.
“I can’t believe we lost seven wickets for 20 runs,” Tillakaratne Dilshan, the Sri Lanka captain said. “Somebody needed to take responsibility for winning the game.”