Dunedin, New Zealand: Afghanistan threatened to produce a shock victory over Sri Lanka at the Cricket World Cup on Sunday before the favorites dug themselves out of deep trouble in the run chase and pulled off a four-wicket win.
The Afghans made a respectable 232 after being sent in to bat, and fiercely defended that total.
The bowlers were performing jubilant cartwheels as Sri Lanka lurched from 2-2 to 18-3 and 51-4. A Mahela Jayawardene 100 and 44 from captain Angelo Mathews salvaged the situation, but Sri Lanka was still a shaky 178-6 in the 42nd over.
However Thisara Perera's unbeaten 47 off 32 balls guided his team to victory, denying the Afghans a first World Cup victory but not denying them any admirers after coming so close to beating the former champions.
Sri Lanka lost Lahiru Thirimanne to the opening ball of the innings, and when experienced duo Tillakaratne Dilshan (0) and Kumar Sangakkara (7) departed in quick succession, the favorites were under genuine pressure.
When Hamid Hassan bowled Sangakkara with a superb delivery at 18-3 in the sixth over, his reaction was unrestrained: he threw himself into a wild cartwheel which left him sprawling on the pitch.
But the 126-run stand between Jayawardene and Mathews set Sri Lanka on its way to victory at the University Oval.
"We probably dodged a bullet today," Jayawardene said. "All credit to Afghanistan. Tey batted very well in tough conditions and then bowled beautifully, bowled up to the batsman with a bit of movement and put us under a lot of pressure."
Hamid bowled round the wicket to Sri Lanka's left-handers and was almost unplayable with the new ball when he hit the right length. The delivery that dismissed Sangakkara angled in through the air but then nipped back further from the seam and seared past a tentative defensive stroke.
Hamid beat the bat on several occasions and the Sri Lanka batsman attempted a number of panicked singles which almost led to run outs as the pressure mounted. In the 12th over, Hamid bowled a ball that seamed away from Dimuth Karunaratne who tried to steer it to third man but succeeded only in edging it to Nawroz Mangal at slip. Sri Lanka was 51-4 and Hamid's joy was unrestrained.
Jayawardene made a nervous beginning, reflective of his recent lack of form, but showed his class in building a match-winning 118-ball innings. He made his 19th century in one-day internationals and fourth in World Cups.
He and Mathews gave Sri Lanka the firm upper hand, but there was another twist when Mathews was run out and Jayawardene fell one run later, caught at third man to give Hamid Hassan his third wicket.
Perera, controversially recalled for this match, made 47 of the 58-run stand with Jeevan Mendis that guided Sri Lanka home. The win put Sri Lanka's campaign back on track after its 98-run loss to New Zealand in its opening game.
Earlier, Asghar Stanikzai made 54 in a record 88-run partnership for the third wicket which lifted Afghanistan to 232. The partnership between Stanikzai and Samiullah Shenwari (38) was the largest for any wicket by Afghanistan against a top-eight nation in a one-day international and helped it from 40-2 to 128-3 in the 28th over.
Afghanistan was in a strong position at 140-3 after 30 overs, with runs on the board and wickets in hand, but wasn't able to capitalize on the platform set by Stanikzai, who now has five half centuries in official ODIs.
Lasith Malinga showed signs of form taking 3-41 and Mathews matched those figures as Sri Lanka slowed Afghanistan's scoring, holding it to 10-2 during the batting power play and to 63 from the last 15 overs.
"We started very well for the first 30 overs but after that we didn't play well," Afghanistan captain Mohammad Nabi said. "We were short 30 or 40 runs.
"In the second half we bowled very well for the first 10 or 15 overs and put pressure on them at three down. But we missed a few run outs. It was a tough and tight game and the boys played very well."