It was always going to be a thriller, this particular clash between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The defending champions were a team in transition. Afghanistan were the team on the rise, attempting to topple a biggie and hold alight the Associate candle. The match zigged and it zagged before Sri Lanka eventually got their ICC World Twenty20 2016 campaign off to a flier with a six-wicket victory at the Eden Gardens on Thursday (March 17).

Afghanistan, opting to bat, found the distance between the first round and the Super 10s hard to bridge. Runs were hard to come by, with Thisara Perera (3 for 33) and Rangana Herath (2 for 24) causing them trouble. But, when needed the most, Asghar Stanikzai, the captain, unleashed an assault – starting with consecutive sixes off Milinda Siriwardana in the 13th over – scoring a 47-ball 62, and putting on 61 with Samiullah Shenwari (14-ball 31) for the fifth wicket asAfghanistan ended with 153 for 7.

Sri Lanka’s chase got off to a good start via Tillakaratne Dilshan and Dinesh Chandimal. But once the spinners were introduced, it was an uphill battle on a pitch becoming progressively slower and more difficult. Yet, the experienced Dilshan guided the chase, scoring an unbeaten 56-ball 83 to take the team through in 18.5 overs, putting on an unbroken 42 with Angelo Mathews.

There were early signs that Dilshan would cause problems. The Dilscoop was deployed in the second over he faced, off Dawlat Zadran, and it went all the way for six. He only plays that when he is really in the mood, and on the day, he was. Chandimal offered particularly good company at the other end, playing the pull to good effect. Their 41-run opening stand hinted at an early night.

However, once spin was introduced, the tone of the game changed. Mohammad Nabi, in his first over, had Chandimal (18) miscuing a heave. It was a grind thereafter, with boundaries drying up. Rashid Khan, the legspinner, supported Nabi ably: He had the in-form Lahiru Thirimanne bowled three overs later.

Even as Dilshan ploughed away at one end, wickets fell at the other. Thisara Perera hung around to add 27 before being run-out, although the decision from the third umpire was debatable. Chamara Kapugedera followed suit after adding 28 with Dilshan, and Sri Lanka still needed 41 from 29 balls.

In Mathews, Dilshan finally had the support he needed—with the Afghanistan fielders doing their bit too. There were three misfields that each went for four, and that played a huge role in reducing the pressure on Sri Lanka. Mathews and Dilshan put away the boundaries, and eventually took Sri Lanka home.

Earlier, it had seemed Afghanistan couldn’t cope with the pressures of facing a full member side, the defending champions, no less, so quickly after the first round. Runs were hard to come by as Mathews and Nuwan Kulasekara tested the batsmen with tight, irritating lines. The in-form, but impatient, Mohammad Shahzad was dismissed early.

Noor Ali put away a couple of boundaries, but Sri Lankan bowlers didn’t allow them too many of that. When Herath was brought on, their problems compounded. Noor Ali was bowled down leg with deceiving drift. Karim Sadiq didn’t trouble the scorers, and neither did Nabi. After 11 overs, Afghanistan had 51 for 4 on board, and it seemed for all the talk of this being their best chance to topple a big team, they didn’t have enough in them to do so.

That thought was premature though. Everything changed in the 13th over, when Mathews introduced Siriwardana, the left-arm spinner. Something clicked in Stanikzai. He got to the pitch of the ball and thwacked one over midwicket, getting enough on the bat to take it over the fence. He followed that up with another one, straight down the ground on one knee, and just like that, Afghanistan had arrived.

It helped that he had Shenwari for company. The allrounder’s big-hitting prowess is well known, and the two launched an assault that undid all Sri Lanka’s good work. Luck was with Stanikzai as well – he was twice dropped, on 34 and 44. Shenwari matched him for blows in the ultimate exhibition of power batting. The total zoomed past the 100-mark, and there were still four overs to go.

Shenwari then holed out – the risk was always there – off Kulasekara. Stanikzai bludgeoned a couple more boundaries before following suit. It was a crucial innings, even if the result didn’t go Afghanistan’s way. It was a statement of intent from the Associate side. Sri Lanka won’t mind, though – they finally have their victory.

Manoj Narayan is Senior Staff Writer at Wisden India. Mint is in content partnership with Wisden India for 2016 ICC World T20.