Jaffna Kings go to the LPL final thanks to Avishka Fernando's maiden T20 century.

Jaffna Kings go to the LPL final thanks to Avishka Fernando’s maiden T20 century.

Dambulla fall short as Avishka and Rahmanullah Gurbaz share 170 runs.

Jaffna Kings 210 for 4 (Avishka 100, Gurbaz 70) beat Dambulla Giants 187 for 9 (Karunaratne 75*) by 23 runs

Avishka Fernando’s first century of the LPL season, along with the tournament’s second 200-plus score, pushed the Jaffna Kings to a 23-run victory over the Dambulla Giants, securing a spot in Thursday’s final against the Galle Gladiators.

Chamika Karunaratne’s late attack was responsible for the Giants’ narrow defeat. Karunaratne finished undefeated on 75 off 47 deliveries, a knock that will leave them wondering what may have been.

The Giants were inefficient with both bat and ball at crucial moments. Too many of Dambulla’s batters failed to capitalise on promising starts after being handed a mammoth goal of 211. Phil Salt, the LPL’s leading run-scorer, looked dangerous but top-edged a short, slightly slower one from Suranga Lakmal; Niroshan Dickwella looked like he was about to do some serious damage but then whipped out a reverse sweep to no avail; and Najbullah Zadran had tonked two sixes in his 15-ball 25, before top-edging a heave over cover. Karunaratne’s knock could have been a match-winning one if any of them had stayed a bit longer.

Then there were a slew of misfields in the field, and Rahmanullah Gurbaz, who would go on to destroy the Dambulla bowlers en route to a 40-ball 70, was dropped twice, once on 11 and then on 32. He and Avishka would put up a 122-run opening stand, and the two would account for 170 of the Kings’ 210 runs.

Even on a Sooriyawewa surface where the ball came off the bat smoothly – a far cry from the nasty turners seen in Colombo during the group stages – a score of more than 200 was well over par. Dambulla finally perished as a result of this, as well as a failure to hold on to the opportunities they did create.

The Day’s Stars

Where better to start than with Avishka? Everyone behind the scenes at Sri Lanka Cricket has been trying to break the secret on how to consistently get the best out of him since he made his national debut at the 2019 World Cup. His exceptional hand-eye coordination has been visible since he was a child, but there have been concerns about him being undone by top-notch pace and lateral movement at the highest level.

At this year’s T20 World Cup, a patchwork solution was found when he was moved to the middle order, allowing him to get his eye in before unleashing. This worked well in the first round, but he was unable to replicate his success in the World Cup itself.

Avishka’s shortcomings were never likely to be tested here, on a surface that didn’t allow much in the way of lateral movement. So, starting at the top of the order, he wreaked havoc on the Giants. His only genuine blunders were his maiden boundary, a sliced drive on the up that flew past the slip cordon, and his dismissal in the final over, when he top-edged a wide full toss to cover. Between the two innings, he hit 10 fours and four sixes, two of which came off a Karunaratne over, the 18th of the innings, which he single-handedly plundered for 22 runs.

Gurbaz, on the other hand, was a force to be reckoned with, putting even Avishka’s bravado to shame. Lady luck, on the other hand, gave him a debt of gratitude; he was dropped twice, all of which were pretty simple, if not easy, chances. In his opening game of the tournament, he took Lahiru Samarakoon for two monster sixes down the ground, putting him out for 18 runs in the eighth over. Though the best shot was probably a skip down the track to strike Imran Tahir for a six, bringing his total to 50 off just 28 balls. His innings was momentarily disrupted by a hamstring injury, and he was soon out caught; the Kings will be hopeful he’ll be back in time for the final.

Meanwhile, Karunaratne was Dambulla’s lone bright spot. Given the dire situation the Giants were in when he arrived at the crease, his savaging of the Kings bowlers, particularly Thisara Perera, whom he took for 21 near the end of the innings, was never going to be enough, but it did give the final result a sense of respectability, and probably more than a tinge of regret in the top and middle order. It was, however, a timely reminder to Sri Lanka’s selectors of the man’s abilities.

A turning point has arrived.

In a game where two players account for 80 percent of the runs scored in a single inning, it’s difficult to pinpoint a tipping point. The Giants, on the other hand, will undoubtedly wonder what could have been if they had hung on to their chances against Gurbaz, or simply been a little bit better on the field. There were several half-chances at runouts that were not taken advantage of, and the number of misfields surpassed the number of wickets.

The Kings, on the other hand, were all in from the start. Wanindu Hasaranga was running 40 metres and diving forward at full speed to hold on to a similar chance presented by Salt while Tahir was dumping a skier from Gurbaz.