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CRICKET: THE ASIAN CHALLENGE

September 09, 2018

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Captains of six teams which competed in the Asia Cup qualifying tournament in Malaysia
Captains of six teams which competed in the Asia Cup qualifying tournament in Malaysia

Even before the first ball is delivered in the main round of one of the most eagerly awaited cricket competitions, the 2018 Asia Cup has been robbed of, arguably, its biggest attraction as the redoubtable Virat Kohli is taking a break after an exhaustive tour of England and therefore will not be seen in action in the tournament.

The absence of the undisputed best cricketer of the modern generation has definitely taken some of the gloss off from the clash of the titans — when India face their traditional rivals Pakistan on the fifth day of the main round on Sept 19. It will be the first-ever encounter between them in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since April 2006.

The forthcoming edition was originally slated to be played in India but, following a meeting of the Asian Cricket Council in Singapore, it was decided on Oct 29, 2015 that the tournament should be relocated to the UAE mainly because of Indo-Pak political tensions.

Although the Asia Cup has had a patchy history in terms of teams taking part in it on a regular basis, the ODI tournament has never been short of action or drama

The Asia Cup has basically been a low-key event since its inception in 1984 when the UAE hosted the inaugural tournament, which was played on a round-robin basis with no final, and which India won with Sri Lanka as the runners-up and Pakistan going home with two straight losses. Earlier, there had been a few instances when either Pakistan or India chose to boycott the continental jamboree because of strained bilateral relations. Many would also remember that India refused to travel to Sri Lanka for the 1986 edition of the tournament due to acrimonies arising out of a controversy-filled Test series on the island the previous year. Pakistan, on the other hand, missed the 1990 event hosted by India.

The format of the 2018 event is the same as was in 2004 and 2008 when a Super-Four round followed the group stage. But with the five Test-playing nations of the region — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — earning automatic entry into the main round, the ACC this time around organised a qualifying tournament in Malaysia where, apart from the host country UAE, Nepal, Hong Kong, Oman and Singapore competed from Aug 29 to Sept 6.

Will Pakistan lift this trophy?
Will Pakistan lift this trophy?

At the time of our going to the press, UAE and Hong Kong have qualified for the final. The winners of the Malaysian event would brace themselves for the intimidating challenge of playing both Pakistan and India in Group B of the main round. In all probability and barring any sort of melodramas, the two giants of Asian cricket should have a smooth sailing into the Super-Four phase where they are certain to face each other again at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Sept 23, and then hopefully for the Sept 28 title-decider in Dubai if they seal the top two spots in the Super-Four round.

It is a foregone conclusion that one team from the Group A trio of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan will surely go home early after the pool round as they are all pitted togther in the ‘group of death’. The Afghans are still new to international cricket but they have the knack of upsetting the bigger teams. Led by the wizardry of their young spin sensations Rashid Khan and Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, the Asghar Stanikzai-led Afghanistan side boasts of a decent bowling attack.

Sri Lanka have been enduring rough times this year in terms of achieving favourable results in the One-day Internationals (ODIs) and are rated as the most vulnerable of the five top teams at this point in time. Angelo Mathews, their captain, has a herculean job on his hands to get the best out of his players who, nevertheless, are a talented bunch. It is the lack of consistency as a team which has been long identified as the team’s chief drawback since the retirements of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. And even though Lasith Malinga, the injury-riddled pace bowler, makes a comeback to the national team at the ripe age of 35, the prospects of winning a sixth Asia Cup look quite gloomy for the islanders.

Bangladesh, despite their struggles in Tests, have been doing pretty well in the ODIs in recent times under the captaincy of Mashrafe Mortaza. And with the seasoned brigade of Shakib Al Hasan, Mahmudullah, Tamim Iqbal and Mushfiqur Rahim to depend upon, they also have the capacity to go all the way in search of a maiden Asian title after stunning all pundits by reaching the Champions Trophy semi-finals last year.

With due respect to the rest of the field, the main attraction for everyone in the Asia Cup will be Pakistan and India. The archrivals have not met since a charged-up Sarfraz Ahmed’s team sealed an emphatic victory against heavy odds at The Oval in June 2017 as Pakistan finally broke their ICC Champions Trophy jinx.

The main attraction for everyone will be Pakistan and India. The archrivals have not met since a charged-up Sarfraz Ahmed’s team sealed an emphatic victory against heavy odds at The Oval in June 2017 when Pakistan finally broke their ICC Champions Trophy jinx.

One man who came to the fore in that final in a big way was Fakhar Zaman with a dazzling century. Since then the 28-year-old left-hander from Mardan has gone from strength to strength to become one of the most entertaining batsmen on the international stage. On the recent tour of Zimbabwe, Fakhar rewrote record books by becoming Pakistan’s first ODI double centurion when he thumped an undefeated 210 at Bulawayo after playing a pivotal role in his team’s clinching the preceding T20 tri-series, making 91 in the final against Australia at Harare.

Pride of Pakistan — Fakhar Zaman
Pride of Pakistan — Fakhar Zaman

Fakhar is not the only individual in the Pakistan ranks to take centre stage. Imam-ul-Haq has also emerged as a perfect foil to the dashing Fakhar at the top of the order of a batting line-up that looks quite formidable after the induction of power-hitting Asif Ali. There is a definite solid look about Pakistan batting nowadays with the likes of Shoaib Malik, Babar Azam and Sarfraz, all working hard to make their presence felt whenever they are needed to.

Perhaps Pakistan’s biggest plus point is their multi-talented bowling led by the experienced Mohammad Amir with young tyros Hasan Ali, Faheem Ashraf, Shaheen Shah Afridi and Usman Khan Shinwari collectively forming a destructive pace artillery, followed by the precocious Shadab Khan who has grown rapidly as a leg-spinning all-rounder.

India’s talisman Virat Kohli will be sorely missed
India’s talisman Virat Kohli will be sorely missed

Statistically, Pakistan have won the Asia Cup only twice — both times in Bangladesh in 2000 and 2012 — and have surprisingly lost 10 of their 14 fixtures against Sri Lanka in sharp contrast to their clashes with India where both have won five matches apiece with one being a no-result match.

India and Sri Lanka have been Asia Cup champions five times each. But this could dramatically change this time around as the Rohit Sharma-led Indian side doesn’t look the same force without the influential Kohli, both with his batting and leadership. And that could be a good omen for Pakistan as they embark on a backbreaking international season which culminates next March, barely two months before the 2019 World Cup kicks off in the UK.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 9th, 2018