DUBAI: India’s Virat Kohli has the chance to find form before the World Cup while Babar Azam will look to keep Pakistan’s psychological edge when the rival countries clash as the headline acts of the Asia Cup starting this weekend.
Cricket giants India and Pakistan could square up three times during the two weeks of the T20 competition in the United Arab Emirates.
The six-nation tournament was moved from Sri Lanka because of political unrest and it takes on extra significance this year because the T20 World Cup in Australia is coming up fast, in October and November.
Sri Lanka meet Afghanistan in Saturday’s opening match but all eyes will be on India and Pakistan, who clash in Dubai on Sunday.
India will be looking to avenge their 10-wicket humiliation by Pakistan at the same venue in last year’s T20 World Cup.
India head coach Rahul Dravid has Covid and India late on Wednesday appointed former batsman V.V.S. Laxman to take charge in an interim capacity.
The match will be Kohli’s 100th T20 international and a chance for the batting great to emerge from his prolonged slump before the World Cup.
The 33-year-old has not scored a century in any format since 2019 but should be refreshed after being rested for tours of the West Indies and Zimbabwe.
Kohli, who has 27 centuries in 102 Tests, was replaced by Rohit as all-format skipper earlier this year.
Pakistan’s fortunes will mainly depend on in-form skipper Babar, fresh from two big half-centuries in his team’s 3-0 ODI sweep of the Netherlands.
Babar, 27, tops the world T20 and ODI batting rankings and led his team to victory last year against India with an unbeaten 68.
Pakistan have brought in pace bowler Mohammad Hasnain in place of Shaheen Shah Afridi, India’s T20 destroyer last year, who has been forced out by a knee injury.
India vice-captain K.L. Rahul said his team was looking forward to playing Pakistan with the arch-rivals only meeting each other in multi-nation events due to political issues between them.
The neighbours have not played a Test since 2007, instead facing off only in the shorter versions of the game and at multi-team competitions on foreign soil, rather than head-to-head series at home.
“We are all very excited. As players we always look forward to this India-Pak clash as we don’t play each other anywhere else but these big tournaments,” Rahul told reporters on Friday.
“As we’ve seen there is a huge history, there has always been rivalry and the games have always been high intensity. As players we have always dreamt of playing India-Pakistan and it’s a great opportunity for all of us to challenge ourselves.”
Matches ignite great fervour but they have also defused military tensions between the two nations, which have fought four wars since independence from Britain in 1947.
Recently pictures and videos of Babar and Kohli meeting on the sidelines of a practice session in Dubai went viral.
“We can’t run away from the rivalry and emotion that comes through as a player,” Rahul said. “After the game or before, everything goes away you become normal people, learn from each other, share experiences, it’s always been friendly.”
Defending champions India, who won the last Asia Cup in 2018 when it was played over 50 overs, and Pakistan will be joined in Group ‘A’ by Hong Kong who defeated the UAE in the final qualifier on Wednesday.
Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are in Group ‘B’.
The top two teams from each group progress to a Super 4 stage, which could witness another contest between India and Pakistan.
The great rivals could then meet for a third time should they both reach the September 11 final.
Sri Lanka, led by Dasun Shanaka, could be the India-Pakistan party-poopers.
They have a shown a lot of promise under new head coach Chris Silverwood and are capable of reaching the final, having enjoyed success in recent home series against a backdrop of a dire economic crisis.
Victory would bring some welcome cheer to the cricket-crazy island nation ravaged in recent months by food and fuel shortages and rolling blackouts.
Afghanistan, under the leadership of the seasoned Mohmmad Nabi, will be looking to beat the higher-ranked teams, something they were unable to in the T20 World Cup here last year.
They have the ability to upset any side, their ace being leg-spinner Rashid Khan, one of the world’s leading T20 bowlers who can exploit and turn in the subcontinent-like UAE pitches.
Bangladesh have been boosted by the return of all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan to lead the team, who said his priority was to see an improvement in performances of the struggling side with the World Cup fast approaching.
Though the conditions in the UAE will be different from what teams will be experiencing in the World Cup in Australia, all the competing sides will be looking to identify their final squad for the ICC event over the course of the next two weeks.
Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2022