ICC WC 2019: High-fliers meet bottom dwellers

India's paceman Mohammed Shami bowls during a training session at the Hampshire Bowl in Southampton on June 20, 2019, ahead of their 2019 World Cup cricket match against Afghanistan. (AFP Photo)

Afghanistan, the most impressive of the emerging cricketing nations, couldn’t have had a worse build-up to the World Cup.

The change in captaincy (from Asghar Afghan to Gulbadin Naib), with just a few days left for the event to begin, didn’t go down well with many senior players. While successive defeats have left them demoralised, a brawl involving their players with some of the fans at a restaurant in Manchester was the last thing they needed when little has been going well for them on the field. This was followed by a chastening defeat at the hands of England the next day after the brawl and talks of “all is not well” in the team were doing the rounds. For a team that came into the tournament with an impression of pulling off a couple of surprises, it has been pretty disappointing performance.

Still reeling under the crushing 150-run loss on Tuesday, Afghanistan run into another in-form team in India, the only unbeaten side in the tournament apart from New Zealand, here at the Hampshire Bowl on Saturday. The beating that Rashid Khan got at the hands of marauding Eoin Morgan (148 off 71 balls with four fours and a world record 17 sixes) would have left deep scar from which they had little time recover. The leg-spinner – their best bowler by some distance – was clobbered for 110 runs in just nine overs with 11 sixes being hit off his bowling.

England’s batsmen’s domination of Rashid will have also given some extra confidence and possibly some clues the Indian batsmen who otherwise have been wary of facing him which stems from the fact that he has been quite effective against most of them in the Indian Premier League. Also, Afghanistan are one the rare teams in the tournament that has consistently played three spinners -- off-spinners Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman besides Rashid. While this has worked well for them in the sub-continent, a third spinner can be luxury in English conditions which have been largely overcast.

A largely sunny day on the eve of the match and a forecast for a similar weather with no prediction for rain on Saturday’s match day, could again tempt Afghanistan to go in with three-pronged spin attack on a brownish surface that got good exposure to sunlight but that then it’s a double-edged sword given Indian batsmen’s pedigree against spin.  

India themselves will be forced to make at least one change through injury to Bhuvneshwar Kumar. The right-arm paceman picked up a left hamstring injury during Pakistan game and is yet to make full recovery. While he is expected to miss at least another game, Mohammad Shami gets a crack at Afghan batsmen. Having sat three completed matches, Shami will have to guard against overcompensating for lack of game time.

Having taken only three specialist pacemen, India will have to stick with their two leg-spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav who have done what has been asked of them. Jasprit Bumrah was excellent in the first match here on June 5 against South Africa but since then, the paceman seems to have gone a bit off the boil and memories of that match should help him regain his rhythm. All-rounders Vijay Shankar and Hardik Pandya have shown they can be used both as strike bowlers and stock options to complete the fifth bowler’s quota.

The Indian batting has looked as good as it has ever with openers and middle-order batsmen coming to the party. With two centuries and a half-century in three innings, Rohit Sharma has been the pick of their batsmen while skipper Virat Kohli has looked in sublime touch. While Shikhar Dhawan’s injury-forced exit from the WC was a big setback, K L Rahul appears to have assumed the left-hander’s mantle with aplomb.

India do start firm favourites but Afghanistan, with nothing to lose, can just make Kohli’s men earn that victory.

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