There was a big cloud hanging over Mohammad Hafeez ahead of the first ODI against Sri Lanka in Dambulla. He had managed only returns of 98 runs and three wickets in four innings before missing the series-deciding Test in Pallekele to undergo tests on his bowling action. He replied by getting impressive drift, turn and bounce, claiming his personal best figures of 4 for 41 in 10 overs, including a maiden before marshalling the chase of 256 with his tenth ODI century, the last four of which have come against Sri Lanka.
Hafeez rolled into action right away, after the hosts were inserted on a pitch with a tinge of grass. He began by removing left-handed batsman Kusal Perera off his third delivery. He would eventually cap his spell with the wicket of another left-hand batsman, Thisara Perera, off his last ball.
Sri Lanka, however, were hauled to a competitive total by Dinesh Chandimal, who profited from controlled bottom-handed heaves and slog-sweeps to score an unbeaten 65 off 68 balls.
The hosts' momentum, though, faded away quickly in the chase, with Azhar Ali and the recalled Ahmed Shehzad beginning strongly. They set up Pakistan's ninth fifty-plus opening partnership in the last ten ODIs before both openers were out caught behind, fishing outside off. Hafeez struggled with his timing early on, dragging and hacking balls over the leg side but settled down after his fifty and underpinned Pakistan's reply against a Sri Lankan attacked that lacked bite.
The change of gears from Hafeez was stark: the first fifty took 58 balls while the second took only 35. After lifting Thisara Perera over point, Hafeez pumped his fist, hugged Shoaib Malik, the first and the only other Pakistan player to have produced a four-wicket haul and a century in the same ODI.
Two balls later, Hafeez popped a return catch back to Thisara but by then the equation was clawed down to 58 off 85 balls. Malik then took up the mantle, first waltzing to his fifty and then sealing victory by launching Tillakaratne Dilshan over long-off with six wickets and 28 balls to spare. Malik used his feet adeptly and crunched four fours and two sixes in his 45-ball 55.
It was Mohammad Irfan, though, returning to the ODI team after recovering from a stress fracture of the pelvis suffered during the World Cup, who bustled in and set the tone in the morning. Bowling with the wind, Irfan extracted trampoline bounce and zip, often clocking speeds north of 140kph. Azhar Ali let him rip in short spells; Irfan had the batsmen and Sarfraz Ahmed swaying and slithering before Hafeez made the incisions.
After nabbing Kusal for 26, Hafeez undid another left-hand batsman in Upul Tharanga with sharp turn. Two overs later, Hafeez bowled Dilshan with subtle variation in flight and length. Dilshan's innings was scratchy: he threw his bat at balls outside off which swerved past the outside edge and he skewed attempted off-side drives through midwicket. His score at various points read 3 off 9, 19 off 35, and 35 off 58 before he was dismissed for 38 off 65 balls.
Dilshan could have been removed for 2 in the third over had Irfan not overstepped before Sarfraz snaffled a heathy nick. The next ball, a free hit, was flapped straight into the lap of mid-on. But Dilshan could not push on. Lahiru Thirimanne and Tharanga did not fare any better either, giving it away for 23 and 20.
The fabled pair of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jaywardene was not around, but Angelo Mathews and Chandimal converted promise into substance. Chandimal's previous ODI innings - 52 off 24 balls - relied more on muscle and nearly pulled the rug from under Australia's feet in the World Cup before he was out injured. This was a more measured innings. He nudged the ball into the gaps and found release through the occasional offbreaks of Malik and Yasir Shah, who couldn't replicate his threat in the Tests.
Just as Sri Lanka shaped for a late surge, Yasir logged himself into the wickets column with his penultimate ball when he forced a top edge from Mathews to long-on for 38 off 54. Rahat produced a double-strike in the 49th over, but Chandimal's half-century and a spunky cameo from debutant allrounder Milinda Siriwardana left the crowd bounding in the papare. It was short-lived, though, as Hafeez turned it on, again.