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COLOMBO: A winning start against a weak side, but not without some stark reminders of what requires redress. India defeated Afghanistan by 23 runs, kick-starting their ICC World Twenty20 campaign on a victorious note, but were tested first by the hulking left-arm pacer Shapoor Zadran when they were sent in, and then by a series of Afghani cameos that threatened momentarily before fizzling out.
Shapoor sent down a terrifying opening spell, taking out openers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir cheaply, before Virat Kohli (50) and Suresh Raina (38) capitalised on dropped catches and 16 extras to help India to 159-5.
After looking India in the eye for over three-quarters of the match, Afghanistan caved in under the pressure of a mounting required rate, finishing their chase on 136 in 19.3 overs when L. Balaji shot out their last two batsmen in successive balls.
Balaji finished with 3-19, but it was Yuvraj Singh's 3-24 that got the ball spinning for India. Yuvraj bowled economically and accurately, and although he had his figures spoiled in his last over, his double strike in the 12th over was what deflated the chase.
Wicket-keeper batsman Mohammad Shahzad, a self-confessed fan and practioner of MS Dhoni's helicopter shot, launched the counter, swinging after everything in an entertaining 18, before top-edging L. Balaji to Yuvraj at mid-on. Afghanistan were 42-1 at the end of the Powerplay. Skipper Nawroz Mangal (22), who had opted to field keeping in mind what he considered his team's strength - batting, massacred a massive swept six off Balaji, but was trapped in front against Yuvraj, who was brought on in the eighth over.
R. Ashwin was introduced and spanked over his head for four by Karim Sadiq (26). In the next over, Sadiq slapped Yuvraj past point for another boundary, keeping the required rate in check. Afghanistan needed 91 needed off last ten when Dhoni missed a stumping chance of Sadiq off Ashwin.
But then Afghanistan imploded as three wickets fell for the addition of one run. Sadiq was unable to make good his reprieve. He tried hefting Yuvraj over the deep mid-wicket boundary and was held by Gautam Gambhir.
Yuvraj struck again on the next ball - his third wicket - with one that drifted in and spun away from Asghar Stanikzai; the batsman feathered it to Dhoni. Samiullah Shenwari then lobbed a return catch to Ashwin as Afghanistan plummeted to 76-5. With the asking rate well over 11, India's bowling did not have to do anything special to see the team home.
There was another minor twist though. The no.5 Mohammad Nabi (31, 17b) carted sixes off Ashwin and Zaheer Khan, who had returned for the 16th over, bringing his team back into the equation with 44 needed off the last four. But Ashwin, harnessing the pause in delivery to disturbingly good effect, snared Nabi in the 17th over, the batsman charging down and edging to Rohit Sharma at mid-off.
Earlier, Afghanistan spilled at least four catches and conceded 16 extras to help India on their way. India were sent in and Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir lived dangerously against Shapoor, who bowled three overs in a fiery opening spell. One delivery skidded on to Sehwag and was clocked 150.3 by the speed gun. That might have been an exaggeration, an aberration of technology, but it did not take a gadget to gauge just how well Shapoor was bowling.
Shapoor accounted for both openers. Gambhir played on and soon after Sehwag was done in outside the off stump, the edge travelling fast and sure to the 'keeper. Yuvraj looked good in the middle, stroking a clean straight six in his 17 before he was dropped by Nabi off his own bowling on 17. One run later, Yuvraj was out for good, slicing offie Karim Sadiq into short third man's hands.
Nabi then dropped the new man SUresh Raina, again off his own bowling, when the leftie had made 2. Another reprieve followed as Kohli's catch was fluffed by Sami at long on off Sadiq, when the batsman had made 33. What was worse Sami managed to push the ball over the boundary, conceding a six. The two dropped batsmen went on to add a total of 53 to their respective scores.
Meanwhile, Shahzad walked off the pitch due to a recurring knee injury and handed the big gloves over to Sadiq. Shapoor came in for his last over and went for 14 as India crossed 100 in the 14th. Raina was dropped again on 20, spilled at point by the 12th man.
Kohli reached his 50 - his sixth half-century in as many international innings - in 38 balls, but got out on the next ball as Afghanistan finally held a catch. Attempting to clear long on with a sweet strike off Dawlat Zadran, Kohli was taken just inside the boundary by Nabi over his head. Raina ran out of luck when he was bowled by Nabi in the last over, but Dhoni clobbered a six and a four off the last two balls as India ended on 159-5.
OTHER RESULTS TODAY:
Group B: Australia beat Ireland by 7 wickets
Warm-up: England beat Pakistan by 15 runs