Pallekele: Virat Kohli won’t mind an encore of that magical moment against Haris Rauf while Rohit Sharma would be ready with his answers for Shaheen Shah Afridi’s banana inswingers in India’s ‘battle royale’ against Pakistan, which will be more than just a World Cup dress rehearsal.
The Asia Cup has returned to the 50-over format to facilitate an ideal match preparation for five of the six participating teams but for organisers and the fans India versus Pakistan is not just another game, it is ‘The Match’.
Kohli’s lofted check-drive off Rauf under the Melbourne skyline last year during the T20 World Cup became a part of Indian cricket fans’ muscle memory while Pakistanis rejoiced when Rohit failed to negotiate a lethal tailing-in delivery from Shaheen and was caught plumb.
Such performances help players grow into legends and Saturday’s Asia Cup game will be another opportunity for cricketers from both sides to emerge as heroes.
However, with steady rain predicted in the hilly Kandy region on Saturday, an anti-climax to a mouth-watering clash can’t be ruled out.
The Indian team, which is yet to fit in all the jigsaw puzzles will be hoping that their ‘holy trinity’ of skipper Rohit, peerless Kohli and his heir apparent Shubman Gill is ready to fight fire with fire against Shaheen, Rauf and the feisty Naseem Shah.
Overcast conditions and a bit of nip in the air are all that Shaheen and Naseem would need during the opening Powerplay to unsettle the Indian top three.
Especially Gill, who doesn’t have a pronounced foot movement against pacers and uses his hands more with a technique that is more about beside the line of the ball rather than behind the line.
The puzzle surrounding the Indian and Pakistani middle-order assumes significance.
India’s concern is accentuated primarily by the absence of KL Rahul, who will miss at least the first two Asia Cup games.
India might have decided to field wicketkeeper-batsman Ishan Kishan in the middle-order against Pakistan but they are still undecided about his slot – No. 4 or No. 5 but mostly the latter position.
Kishan’s inclusion will certainly give the Indian batting unit a bit of variety for him being a left-hander.
But the Jharkhand stumper has never batted at No. 5 in his India career and his average in middle-order is a meagre 22.75.
So, he will have to cope with the demands of that slot like maximising the run-making opportunities as he might not get too many overs to bat.
On the other hand, Pakistan does not have any injury concerns but they are one of the most undercooked ODI sides at the moment.
Since the 2019 World Cup, the ‘Green Brigade’ has played just 29 ODIs, whereas India has played 57 matches in the same period.
Pakistan have played 12 of those 29 matches this year as well. While their top three consisting of captain Babar Azam (689 runs), Fakhar Zaman (593 runs) and Imam-ul-Haq (361 runs) have fired more often than not this year, there is an issue from No. 4 to No. 6.
Usama Mir, Saud Shakeel and Agha Salman have been largely inconsistent barring the odd flicker, and they looked anaemic on the days when Mohammad Rizwan, who bats at No.4, fails.
Often, Pakistan required No. 7 Iftikhar Ahmed and No.8 Shadab Khan to add a bit of heft to their innings. Iftikhar was promoted against Nepal and helped himself with an ODI hundred.
Shadab made a valuable 48 against Afghanistan last week while Pakistan notched up a nervy 1-wicket win at Hambantota.
Rizwan and Salman failed to get a sizeable score against Nepal in their Asia Cup opener at Multan a couple of days back as Pakistan rode on hundreds by Babar and Iftikhar.
While India and Pakistan are travelling on the same boat as far as their middle-order woes are concerned, the latter has a distinct advantage in the bowling department.
Of course, India have been bolstered by the return of Jasprit Bumrah and Prasidh Krishna, and the pacers had also bowled intensely in the T20I series against Ireland recently.
But the Indian management will be keen to watch how they respond to the rigours of 50-over cricket. The think-tank might just prefer the experience of Shami in a needle match against Pakistan.
So, India’s pace attack on the morrow could be Bumrah, Mohammad Siraj and Shami with Hardik Pandya giving them the fourth seamer option.
As impressive as they are on paper, the Pakistan pace troika of Shaheen, Naseem and Rauf is operating at a whole different level. They already have taken 49 wickets among themselves this year with Rauf leading the chart with 17 wickets from 10 matches.
If anything, it indicates a tough examination of the skills of Indian batsmen at the Pallekele stadium, where the pitch offers a reasonable amount of help for the bowlers in the form of bounce and carry.
India will also have to keep a close on the selection in the spin department. Ravindra Jadeja’s inclusion is certain and he could be coming in at No. 7. But that will leave India with four bowlers who hardly contribute with the bat.
India might think long before picking between left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav and left-arm spinner Axar Patel.
While Axar will give India the option of a bowler who can bat at No. 8, Kuldeep has better striking ability.
Kuldeep is India’s highest wicket-taker in ODIs this year with 22 wickets in 11 matches, while Axar has just 3 scalps from 6 matches.
But Pakistan has been served well by leg-spinner Shadab, who has taken 11 wickets from 8 matches in 2023 while chipping in with the bat as well.
Squads: India: Rohit Sharma (captain), Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul, Shubman Gill, Suryakumar Yadav, Tilak Varma, Ishan Kishan, Hardik Pandya (vc), Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumraj, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Kuldeep Yadav, Prasidh Krishna, Sanju Samson (travelling reserve).
Pakistan: Babar Azam (captain), Abdullah Shafique, Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Salman Ali Agha, Iftikhar Ahmed, Mohammad Rizwan, Mohammad Haris, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Usama Mir, Faheem Ashraf, Haris Rauf, Mohammad Wasim Jnr, Naseem Shah, Shaheen Afridi, Saud Shakeel, Tayyab Tahir (travelling reserve).
The match starts at 3 PM IST.