Rohit Sharma and Co begin their Asia Cup 2022 campaign on August 28 in Dubai and their opening encounter will be against Pakistan. While India lead the head to head tally 5-3 against their subcontinental rivals in this tournament, Pakistan have the advantage of causing an upset the last time the two sides locked horns at the ICC T20 World Cup 2021.

Ahead of the encounter this time around, former India head coach Ravi Shastri and former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram spoke on Star Sports about how the contest is now evenly poised between the two sides in the upcoming Asia Cup, Virat Kohli’s form, comparison between Babar Azam and Kohli, Shaheen Afridi’s absence and more.

Pakistan’s confidence against India

Although the two sides do not compete against each other beyond multi-team tournaments, India held the advantage against Pakistan before it was disrupted in the ICC Champions Trophy in 2017 and most recently, after the 10-wicket victory over India in the T20 World Cup last year. Talking about the confidence the Babar Azam-led side gained after that win Akram said, “Pakistan team is on a rise in the last couple of years. Their win over India in the T20 World Cup was convincing and it gave them confidence that they can compete against India day in and day out.”

“It is a young side and the only thing I am worried about is the middle order. There is no experience apart from Iftikhar Ahmed, coming in at No. 4. Then you have Haider Ali, a young sensation, he has not been very consistent but skipper Babar Azam and (Mohammad) Rizwan are key as far as this T20 format is concerned.”

He added: “In general, I think they are confident but it depends on how they feel, what sort of mindset they are in before they arrive for the India-Pak game because that is going to make or break the Asia Cup (campaign) for either side.”

Kohli’s return after a break

Kohli’s form has been a topic of discussion in Indian cricket since the last couple of years. However, after being rested for India’s Tour of West Indies and then, Zimbabwe, the former India captain got some rest in and according to Shastri, the time away from the game is likely to have renewed him.

He said, “I haven’t spoken to him but it’s not rocket science... big players wake up. They wake up in due course. Mental fatigue can creep in to the best in the world. There is not a single player in the world who has not gone through a bad touch. I am sure this down time is not just for the body, it’s time to reflect. He would have reflected as to what things he would have done better, what things he did absolutely right and should keep focusing on, what things he allowed to come into his mindset that was just not required or relevant.”

Road to T20 World Cup: The Virat Kohli piece in Rohit Sharma & Co’s batting jigsaw

While Kohli’s T20 numbers in 2022 have also seen a dip, as his average dropped to 22.2 in 20 matches, he will be hoping to turn things around when he makes his 100th appearance in the T20I format in India’s Asia Cup opener against Pakistan.

“All these things come into play and you get an opportunity to then decide what is the best course of action when you get on to the path again. Whether it is shot selection, whether it is how you plan, when you shift gears in a T20 game... all that will have come into play and now it’s to execute those plans with a calmer mind,” Shastri added.

“He gets a fifty in the first game, mouths will be shut for the rest of the tournament. What’s happened in the past is history. His opportunity here is to take the calmness and take it one day at a time,” he said.

Kohli - Babar comparisons

Because of the consistency and performances Babar Azam has brought for the Pakistan team in the last few years, his rise is considered meteoric. He has often been compared to having a run-machine like tendency like Kohli and also touted as a competitor to the modern cricket quartet of Kohli, Steve Smith, Joe Root and Kane Williamson.

Talking about the comparisons, Wasim Akram said, “It’s only natural. I remember when we played, it was Inzamam versus Rahul Dravid or Sachin Tendulkar. Before that it was Javed Miandad and Sunil Gavaskar, G Vishwanath and Zaheer Abbas. As for Babar, he has been very, very consistent in all three formats because he has got the right technique.”

“He enjoys his batting, he gets the runs and is still very hungry. He’s physically fit, is the captain for all three formats... he is a young captain and he is learning very quickly. I think the comparison is still too early though. Babar is on the right track, to be where Virat Kohli is but comparing the two at this stage of the game, I think it’s a bit early. He is on track to be a modern great of the game though.”

Shaheen Afridi, Jasprit Bumrah ruled out

While India suffered a blow when Jasprit Bumrah was ruled out of the tournament due to a back spasm, Pakistan suffered one as well when Shaheen Afridi was ruled out due to a knee injury. While India boast of excellent bench strength that they will be hoping makes up for the absence of Bumrah, the Pakistani pace spearhead’s absence is a serious disadvantage for Pakistan.

It was a match-winning 3/31 from him that dented India’s innings early on as he cleaned up the top-order. While he is replaced by Mohammad Hasnain for the tournament, Pakistan are now going in without a left-arm seamer – India’s Achilles’ heel.

Akram on Afridi’s absence said, “Pakistan will really miss Shaheen Afridi. He is important because he takes wickets with the new ball. In this format, if you want to put the brakes on scoring early on, then you must take wickets with the new ball. He attacks the stumps, no matter the opposition. He is their main bowler across formats.”

“There has been criticism that he wasn’t rested, there wasn’t any workload management but he’s 21-years-old, he had to play these games. And he’s got a knee injury. As a fast bowler, I never got a knee injury but those who have sustained it say that it takes long to recover from and when you do return to the game, there is a thought in the back of your mind that it does not happen again.”

He added: “If there is effort in your landing as a bowler, it means that you will not be able to bowl unless you hundred percent recover from it. So, it is a huge drawback for Pakistan. He is among the top three bowlers of the world.”