• 15 Sep - 21 Sep, 2018
  • Sohaib ALvi
  • Sports

Some this Saturday and the much awaited Asia Cup will hit the road. Or shall we say hit the pitch. Much awaited less for the excitement of a tournament and more for two, perhaps even three, mouth-watering matches between Pakistan and India, if they meet in the final.

This is because the format of the 2018 Asia Cup is that after two teams qualify each from the two groups there will be a round robin league of the four qualifiers. And if Pakistan and India finish in the top two of the four teams in the second round then they will play the final which will become the third game of the tournament involving the two.

Yes, there are other teams but then who cares if you’re a Pakistani or Indian or a neutral fan of the game. The line up for the 2018 Asia Cup has, of course, been completed with the qualifier coming out to be Hong Kong who beat UAE in the final of the qualifying round played out in Malaysia. The poor cricketers from the Far East are in the same group as India and Pakistan while Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan form the second group.

Looking at this second group first it has been labelled as the ‘group of death’. It is an indication not just of how much Sri Lanka has slipped in the game over the last two years but how much Afghanistan has gained during this time.

The Afghans will be attacking with their tried and trusted weapon which is spin. They have brought in Sharafuddin Ashraf, into their spin threat, back into the side after a gap of some months. He is a left arm spinner who has played 14 ODIs, but hasn’t played since the World Cup Qualifiers in March this year. He has a further six T20Is under his belt.

With the erstwhile leg spinner Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman, he will form the third prong of the slow attack, which is so crucial on UAE pitches and under the scorching desert sun. Rashid and Mujeeb have recently gained valuable experience while playing county cricket in England and have played in the prestigious IPL earlier this year. As if these three are not enough, there is the fourth option in the shape of part time off-spinning all-rounder Mohammad Nabi.

Sri Lanka have banked on experience in their selection. The prime example of that is bringing in Lasith Malinga even though he played his last international for Sri Lanka in September last year and did not appear in their domestic competition in early summer preferring to do a consulting job in IPL. Back also is Dinesh Chandimal, who did not play the recent series against South Africa and Dushmantha Chameera who missed out that series due to injury. However, a late injury to Chandimal in the domestic competition last week may well see him drop out of the squad and is likely to be replaced by Niroshan Dickwella who fetched 158 runs at an average of 31.60, and a strike rate of 82.72 against South Africa recently. His omission was seen as a surprise in the first place.

Bangladesh look the favourites to top the group. They are in form and have grown into a well-oiled unit against the best of teams, especially when playing in Asia. There is worry about Shakib Al Hasan their start performer who had a fantastic tour of the West Indies. He has been reported to be only 20-30% fit by his own admission but he later clarified that was in terms of his match fitness rather than his injured finger.

But the captain Mashrafe Mortaza leads from the front and Bangladesh are confident of success under him. They have besides him in the pace attack, Mustafizur Rehman, Rubel Hossain and Abu Hider. But Bangladesh, like Afghanistan, are likely to attack through spin mainly off spinner Mehidy Hasan Miraz and Shakib.

Whoever emerges from this group is almost surely going to face India and Pakistan as the main teams to beat in the league of four that follows the group stage. There, India threaten even without Virat Kohli, who has taken a breather after a strenuous England tour. They have the dreaded opening pair of Rohit Sharma, who will also be captaining the side, and Shikhar Dhawan who has been named his deputy.

In the middle order there will be Ambati Rayudu, Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav, who are back after missing India's last ODI series in England. KL Rahul nevertheless featured on the tour of England and is here as well as wicketkeeper batsman Dinesh Karthik and the all-rounder that Pakistanis will remember from the Champions Trophy final, Hardik Pandya. MS Dhoni, of course, is a finisher with no par in the world though there are chances he may bat as high as No.4.

Of special interest will be their new firebrand left arm fast bowler Khalil Ahmed from Rajasthan. He is just 20 years old but has played for India A recently. There he took 15 wickets in 9 games, not going wicketless even once. He is quick through the air and can bring the ball into the batsman. With Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar he will form an effective attack.

And so on to Pakistan, who have played on the surfaces of Dubai and Abu Dhabi on more days than the other five teams combined. They know the surfaces well, as well as the weather conditions.

Pakistan are in form and still exuberant from the huge Champions Trophy win over India in the final and over Sri Lanka before that. Their eyes may get distracted in focusing only on India and that can be their only weakness. Otherwise they are strong as individuals and as a combination.

They have been bold enough to leave out Mohammad Hafeez despite the fact that he can now bowl again in international games. Imad Wasim has also been unable to return due to fitness issues.

Pakistan are riding high on the shoulders of Fakhar Zaman their newest sensation who can’t stop making runs since the Champions Trophy last year.

His perfect foil has emerged in the shape of Imam ul Haq and then there is Babar Azam who has over 800 runs in ODIs in UAE. The three will be followed by Shoaib Malik and that is as strong a top-4 as any in the world.

Question will be where Sarfraz bats. With both Hafeez and Imad out, he is likely to come in at No.5 but hasn’t been in form against the better sides. Unless Pakistan play Haris Sohail, who sat out all the games in the tri-series in Zimbabwe. Asif Ali can also bat higher than Sarfraz and showed promising form in that recent series.

But other than Fakhar’s blistering opening salvos, Pakistan will look to their all round strength (that was another reason for Hafeez missing out) to complete the squeeze on the opposition. There, they have Faheem Ashraf, Shadab Khan, Haris Sohail and Mohammad Nawaz as well as Malik, should he be given the ball.

Pakistan are also coming in heavy through the pace attack with Mohammad Amir, Junaid Khan, Usman Khan Shinwari, Shaheen Afridi and Hasan Ali competing for a probable three slots if Pakistan don’t play an extra all-rounder.

Teams and opening matches aside, all eyes will be on September 19, when India and Pakistan face off for the first time in UAE since 2006. India, playing Pakistan for the first time since the CT Final in June 2017, will be looking to avenge that defeat; Pakistan will be looking to further press home their psychological superiority. Without Kohli, its advantage for Pakistan. •