There have been two press conferences from the Indian camp in the lead-up to the World Cup match against Afghanistan in Southampton on Saturday. Jasprit Bumrah on Thursday and Vijay Shankar on Friday were asked the inevitable, yet cliched question, about facing a side that is down in the doldrums. And, as if reading out from their captain’s handbook of handling the media, both the Indian players stressed on how the focus was not on the opponents but only their own processes.
There were no headline-grabbing quotes, there was no uncalled-for chest-thumping over their as-yet unbeaten campaign: there was just professionalism in saying the right things, that we have come to expect from Indian team’s media interactions these days. And come action-time on Saturday, India would be keen to reproduce that professionalism on the field as well. They only have to look at what happened to England against Sri Lanka in Leeds on Friday to know that a banana skin can come from any direction in a tournament such as the World Cup.
For all we know, India’s star-studded line-up could well break a few batting records when they face the tournament’s only win-less side, Afghanistan, in what threatens to be a lopsided contest. But the underdogs only have to look at what their fellow Asian strugglers, Sri Lanka, pulled off against the world No 1 side to know that anything is possible in a cricket match.
This will also be the first time these two sides meet at the World Cup, but Afghanistan can also take some inspiration from their most recent clash ending in a thrilling tie at the Asia Cup (albeit against much-changed Indian side).
Afghanistan’s controversial campaign, marred by poor on and off-field decisions, has gone from bad to worse. And they now face the onerous task of squaring off against a galaxy of world class players, whose performance graph is on the upswing.
India’s schedule was such that they endured tougher matches right at the beginning of the round-robin stage and Virat Kohli’s men have looked every bit the title favourites with comfortable wins against South Africa, Australia and Pakistan.
Such has been their dominance that even injuries to senior opener Shikhar Dhawan, speedster Bhuvneshwar Kumar or all-rounder Vijay Shankar have not had any serious impact on their performance.
Losing Dhawan due to a fractured thumb after his match-winning hundred against Australia is, of course, a big blow but KL Rahul’s composed half century against a rampaging Mohammed Amir must have eased the management’s nerves. And with Rohit Sharma in prime form, the top order looks settled for now. Kohli, who has hit two half-centuries against Australia and Pakistan without even appearing to be at his best, would eye another good outing with the bat.
Also read: With Dhawan gone, does India need a dasher or experience or a 3D amalgamation of both?
Chance to rotate middle order
Kohli could also look at a few options to rotate the middle order, should he feel so, against a hapless Afghanistan bowling attack with their prime bowler Rashid Khan, coming out of a nightmare performance against England.
Vijay’s injury is a slight concern but young Rishabh Pant, with his audacious approach, brings in a certain X-factor that is difficult to ignore. The Indian think-tank could be tempted to let Pant have a go in the middle order with tougher fixtures ahead. If they choose not to risk Vijay in the XI, the fight for that slot will be between Pant and the seasoned Dinesh Karthik, who was team management’s original choice in the squad of 15.
Hardik Pandya, whenever pushed up as the floater, has been a success while Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been rock solid behind the stumps and steady in front of them. This match could also provide Kohli with an opportunity to promote Kedar Jadhav up the order as he is one batsman in the line-up who has not spent enough time in the middle.
India’s bowling attack, which is being touted as the most balanced in the competition, will have a new spearhead with Bhuvneshwar Kumar suffering a hamstring niggle against Pakistan. Bhuvneshwar hobbled out with a stiff left hamstring after bowling only 16 deliveries and even that hardly mattered as all-rounders Vijay and Pandya did the hard yards with the ball.
Against Afghanistan, Mohammed Shami will get his first game in the tournament and his pace and movement could be more than a handful for the likes of Hashmatullah Shahidi or Asghar Afghan.
“We don’t treat any team lightly. Whether its Australia or Afghanistan, we treat every team with equal respect. We focus on our strengths and what we need to do,” team’s premier bowler Bumrah had said.
The inexperienced Afghans may find Kuldeep Yadav or Yuzvendra Chahal’s craft too hot to handle.
However, a spirited show against India will certainly boost Afghanistan’s confidence just as the World Cup seems to be coming alive. Despite the hammering they received against Eoin Morgan and Co in the first half of the match at Old Trafford, the side showed signs of a fighting spirit by batting their full quota against England. That is a good place to start as Gulbadin Naib and co battle to stay relevant in this format.
India: Virat Kohli (captain), Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Vijay Shankar, Hardik Pandya, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), Kedar Jadhav, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja, Rishabh Pant, Dinesh Karthik, Bhuvneshwar Kumar
Afghanistan: Gulbadin Naib (captain), Aftab Alam, Hazratullah Zazai, Asghar Afghan, Rashid Khan, Mohammed Nabi, Mujeeb ur Rahman, Dawlat Zadran, Najibullah Zadran, Hamid Hassan, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Samiullah Shinwari, Rahmat Shah, Noor Ali Zadran, Ikram Alikhil.
Match Starts at 3 pm.
(With PTI inputs)