Picture used for illustrative purpose only.
Mohammad Abdullah, Senior Sports Reporter
Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have set the ball rolling as the battle for the supremacy in Asia Cup got under way in Dubai on Saturday.
With India-Pakistan match hogging all the limelight, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are preparing discretely to launch an ambush on the title charge and set the tone for the rest of the tournament with a victory in the opening match.
A total of six best teams – Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Hong Kong — will battle it out for the top honours.
The 15th edition of the Asia Cup promises an action-packed 16 days, from Aug.27-Sept.11, with some blockbuster clashes on the cards.
The Asia cup was to be played in 2020 but was postponed to 2022 because of the coronavirus. It was to be held in Lanka but due to the political chaos, it was shifted to the UAE – the place where it was born.
India are the most successful team in the history of the tournament having won seven titles in 1984, 1988, 1990-91, 1995, 2010, 2016, 2018. Sri Lanka have clinched the title five times in 1986, 1997, 2004, 2008 and 2014 while Pakistan had the honour to lay down their hands on the trophy in 2000, 2012.
The tournament was played in the 50-over format till 2016 before it was changed to T20 to make it shorter and sharper. Six teams have been divided into two groups of three each. The two teams from each group will advance to the Super 4 stage.
In Group B, Lanka and Afghanistan have been paired with Bangladesh, which makes it tougher group as all the teams are more or less of the same caliber.
Bangladesh and Lanka have an ample of experience to take them through to the next stage but Afghans are known for playing a fearless brand of cricket.
They are capable of springing a surprise or two and can change the whole equation. They have witnessed a mercurial rise, which has earned them the Test status in a very short span of time.
Explosive batsmen like Hazratullah Zazai, Najibullah Zadran can tear apart any bowling line-up where as star spinners like Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi can wreak a havoc on spinning pitches.
Lanka are passing through transition but have many promising players like captain Dasun Shanaka, Kusal Mendis, Dinesh Chandimal and Matheesha Pathirana also known as Baby Malinga, and Bhanuka Rajapakse, who can change the complexion of any game.
Defending champions India are in red hot form. They have a very strong line-up of players at their disposal. They are coming into the tournament on the back of a winning streak.
A second-string India team sans Rohit Sharma and other leading players was enough to whitewash Zimbabwe and West Indies. They have been bolstered by the return of skipper and other frontline players.
The only concern for India will be the form of star batsman Virat Kohli, who has not scored a century for 1000 days in international cricket in any format of the game.
He was rested for West Indies and Zimbabwe tour and returning to the squad to start afresh. It is a good opportunity for him to find his form.
Pakistan will also look to carry the winning momentum into Asia Cup. They clean sweeped the Netherlands in the recently concluded T20 series with captain Babar Azam leading from the front, with two big fifties.
Babar is on the top of the ICC rating in all three formats. Their batting will revolve around the trio of Fakhar Zaman, Mohammad Rizwan and Babar. However, they suffered a huge blow as their pace spearhead Shaheen Shah Afridi was ruled out of the tournament.
Bangladesh, who were the finalist in the last edition, will bank on captain Shakib Al Hasan, who already made his intent clear by predicting a new Asian champions. He is one of the most prolific all-rounders. Pace sensation Mustafizur Rahman and spinner Mahedi Hasan can rip through even the best batting line-up.
Hong Kong, who qualified by beating the UAE, are still considered as perennial makeweights but in the shorter format of the game every team is unpredictable.
They will look to cause some upset and gain some valuable experience after getting a chance to rub their shoulders with the big boys. They were the part of the last Asia Cup and gradually becoming a permanent feature of the tournament.