With their T20 World Cup campaign on the brink, Australia had no choice but to win on Tuesday night. What followed was a pulsating match as the hosts pursued Sri Lanka’s 157 for six on a lively Perth pitch, the contest twisting and turning before Marcus Stoinis ended it emphatically. He set a national record in the format by raising his fifty in 17 balls, taking his team to 158 for three to win with 21 balls to spare.
Not that such a margin looked possible when Sri Lanka’s fast bowlers knocked the top off the innings. After losing Binura Fernando to a hamstring strain in the opening over, Chamika Karunaratne and Lahiru Kumara attacked the Perth surface to make the new ball sing. Moving away, jagging back over the stumps, it barely hit the bat and only found edges when it did. David Warner and Aaron Finch managed 15 runs between them in four overs, then a change to spin saw Warner chip Maheesh Theekshana to cover.
Mitchell Marsh didn’t find it any easier, playing more with thigh pad than bat against the quicks, thumping a couple of hits against Wanindu Hasaranga’s leg spin, and being first dropped and then caught while trying to do the same to Dhananjaya de Silva’s off spin. At 60 for two nearing the halfway mark, his departure for 17 brought in Glenn Maxwell for a vital intervention. Maxwell belted Dhananjaya through midwicket, then took down Hasaranga with two straight sixes and a reverse-swept four, scoring 22 runs from his first six balls.
Reeling, Dasun Shanaka brought back Kumara, a barrel-chested quick who muscles the ball down the track. Soon it was the Australian being hit, targeted by a bouncer barrage, first on his sore hand while fending, then in the neck as he tried to hook. He took several minutes to recover his breath, attended by reserve player Steve Smith who suffered a similar hit in the 2019 Ashes.
In a frenetic Karunaratne over to follow, sub fielder Ashen Bandara dropped Finch at midwicket after a running three-grab attempt, then produced an incredible catch from a flat Maxwell rocket, contorting his heels like a ballerina en pointe to avoid either boot touching the boundary rope and conceding six more.
With Australia needing 61 from 42 balls and victory a long way from assured, Stoinis joined the sputtering Finch. At first the all-rounder took the role of dartboard, peppered by Shanaka and taking accidental boundaries from edges. But his attack on spin was murderous. Again he used Sri Lanka’s premier spinner as the route out, twice finding the midwicket crowd as Hasaranga conceded the most runs in his career, 53 from only three overs.
The Stoinis attack continued against Theekshana, sent over the fence thrice in an over including an outrageous lofted cover drive. A Kumara slower ball provided his sixth six, his final score 59 from 18 balls, some contrast to Finch’s fruitless odyssey to find the middle of the bat and instead returned 31 from 42. Australia’s captain didn’t mind too much, more cheered up by the repair of his team’s net run rate from -4.45 to -1.56.
Earlier, Australia had reason to be discombobulated after their leading wicket-taker in last year’s World Cup, Adam Zampa, was ruled out with a Covid infection, despite being allowed to play and apparently suffering mild symptoms. That opened the door for left-arm spinner Ashton Agar, who controlled the middle overs to return one for 25 in front of his home crowd, complementing a turnaround from Australia’s fast bowlers.
Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and especially Mitchell Starc were challenging, with Starc evading the bat and Cummins earning a top edge from Kusal Mendis with extra bounce. Dhananjaya and Pathum Nissanka were reasonably placed on 75 in the 12th over when Agar intervened, Warner diving in the deep to hold a fine chance. It started a collapse of five for 45, including a portent in Hazlewood’s brutal over to Hasaranga. A series of short balls had the Sri Lankan star hopping, before a fuller ball curled away to draw his edge behind.
Sri Lanka’s No 4 Charith Asalanka stayed put, picking off boundaries among the chaos for 38 from 25, and was helped to the end of the innings by Karunaratne with 14 from seven. Karunaratne took the momentum into his bowling. But Stoinis trumped the lot. “To be honest, I was really nervous today,” he said after the game. It didn’t show.