With the ICC Men’s ODI World Cup looming, the six participating nations at the Asia Cup 2023 will be aware of the high stakes involved in the continental competition.
The tournament comes at a time when it serves as an ideal litmus test ahead of the World Cup. But the build-up for this year’s edition has been rather turbulent.
The event was created in 1984 to promote goodwill between the Asian cricket powerhouses. But the off-field issues between India and Pakistan persisted this time, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India remained firm in their stance that the team will not travel for the Pakistan-hosted 2023 edition.
Perhaps as a result of the might of the Indian governing body, for the first time in the competition’s history, the event will be co-hosted between Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
For India, who will not be travelling to Multan and Lahore at all, the hybrid schedule will not be as taxing as for the other teams, who have to shuttle between the two host-nations during the course of the 17-day long schedule.
However, there is a different kind of pressure at hand for the Rohit Sharma-led side.
Higher stakes for India
Albeit in a different format, India were eliminated in the Super Fours in the previous edition of Asia Cup. This year, with the format being modified to 50 overs to match that of the World Cup, the continental event is just the game-time they need before the mega-event at home in October.
India also returns to a full-strength squad after a long time as middle order batters KL Rahul and Shreyas Iyer mark a comeback after lengthy injury layoffs.
While Iyer has been declared completely fit, Rahul is reportedly carrying a niggle that he picked up at the National Cricket Academy and so, is only conditionally fit. National team coach Rahul Dravid on Tuesday confirmed that Rahul is likely to miss the first two matches in Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, amidst all uncertainty regarding the middle-order, India has a new wildcard entry in Tilak Varma. After his impressive performance in Twenty20 Internationals against the West Indies, where he scored 173 runs at an average of 57.67 in five matches, to finish as the leading run-scorer for India, he might get a game or two at the Asia Cup, making an ODI debut in the process.
“In West Indies, we saw some real promise in terms of not just performances but the temperament,” chief selector Ajit Agarkar said of Varma in the press conference following the squad announcement.
“And it gives us an opportunity to take him with the team, give him some more exposure; a left-hander again, looks very promising,” he added.
However, with Iyer returning to fitness and Rahul almost ready too, who will really answer the perennial No 4 problem?
With captain Sharma stressing upon flexibility, we may see a more dynamic and situation-by-situation approach in the batting line-up. However, the assurance of a solid and stable No 4 batter cannot be negated, especially in a top-three heavy batting line-up like India’s.
“One thing I want in this team is to make sure everyone is okay to bat anywhere,” Sharma had said at the team selection press conference. “That’s one thing we need to keep in mind. You need flexibility, guys who can step up at any position.”
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Lack of batting depth
Moreover, India have another major concern – an evident lack of batting depth that the likes of teams like Pakistan and Sri Lanka boast. Their specialist bowlers like Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah and Wanindu Hasaranga can indeed hit big if needed.
The same, though, cannot be said about India. Apart from Shardul Thakur, Indian bowlers lack the big six-hitting abilties. It helps that India has options to choose from in all-rounders like Hardik Pandya, Axar Patel and Ravindra Jadeja but the batting prowess starts to fade No 7 onwards.
In fact, Sharma said that leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal did not make it to the squad primarily because they needed someone who can bat at No 8 or 9. As a result, India are going in with just the lone wrist-spinner in Kuldeep Yadav along with finger-spinners Patel and Jadeja for company.
Meanwhile, India’s pace battery looks better equipped with Jasprit Bumrah’s return to fitness. It is reassuring that he looked in good rhythm on his comeback in Ireland.
In Mohammed Siraj, who will also be returning after a break, India will also have an able enforcer considering he has been a rather successful workhorse.
Thakur, on the other hand, is expected to be a sure starter in the team considering his much-needed batting prowess lower down the order. With Mohammed Shami and Prasid Krishna also in the mix, the pace bowling unit looks the least of India’s worries currently.
Probable XI: Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul/Ishan Kishan (wk), Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Kuldeep Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj
Rohit Sharma (Captain), Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, Tilak Varma, KL Rahul, Ishan Kishan, Hardik Pandya (Vice-captain), Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Prasidh Krishna
Reserve player: Sanju Samson
What’s it looking like for the other teams?
Babar Azam’s Pakistan, who became the world’s top-ranked ODI team after last week’s 3-0 series sweep against Afghanistan, open their campaign at home against Asia Cup debutants Nepal in Multan.
Azam, who scored 113 runs in the Afghanistan series, leads a side containing a triple-pronged pace bowling attack in Afridi, Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf.
Sri Lanka, who won the Asia Cup last year in Dubai when it was played as a Twenty20 tournament, have been hit by injuries ahead of their opener against Bangladesh in Kandy on Thursday.
Fast bowler Dushmantha Chameera is all but out of the tournament with a shoulder injury and leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga is doubtful for at least the group matches, having missed the Lanka Premier League final eight days ago with a thigh strain.
Bangladesh have had a difficult build-up with Tamim Iqbal stepping down as captain and missing the tournament with a back injury as he tries to get fit for the World Cup. Veteran all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan has been reappointed captain through to the end of the World Cup. He previously led Bangladesh for 50 ODI matches between 2009 and 2017.
Afghanistan, despite their recent loss to Pakistan, can pose problems with their potent spin attack of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi. They also have in-form batter Rahmanullah Gurbaz, who smashed 151 in a losing cause in the second match against Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Nepal could be in for a baptism by fire having been clubbed with India and Pakistan in Group A. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan make up Group B.
With inputs from AFP