Dubai: India all-rounder Hardik Pandya is one of a kind in international cricket. There was a time when several fast-bowling all-rounders were making their mark around the world, but the advent of Twenty20 cricket has revived the dying art of spin and today, Pandya is one of the few who can bowl genuine pace and bat with technical perfection. An all-rounder in the purest form.
Life has come a full circle for Pandya after falling down with a career-threatening back injury during the 2018 50-over Asia Cup in UAE, incidentally the last international trophy India has won till date.
New responsibility on big stage
Pandya enters this Asia Cup in a new role and a new avatar. The Baroda star has been given the responsibility of a vice-captain earlier this year, a leadership role he has been groomed since he guided Gujarat Titans to their maiden Indian Premier League title in their inaugural season in 2022 and followed it up with a spot in the 2023 final, where they lost to the Chennai Super Kings.
This is the first time that Pandya, who has been branded as next Captain Cool as he modelled himself after his idol and former Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, will be assuming the bigger role in an international tournament. How well Pandya handles the pressure at such a big stage will help the team management to give him the responsibility to guide the next generation after the World Cup to be held in India in October-November.
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However, it is not going to be easy for team India. Rohit Sharma, who has a point to prove after not getting any trophies over the last few years, and his men will have be to at their best against strong and capable opponents in the continent.
The showpiece, held in a hybrid model with Pakistan and Sri Lanka hosting the event, begins with hosts Pakistan taking on minnows Nepal in the opener on Wednesday, while defending champions Sri Lanka start their campaign at home against Bangladesh in Pallekele on Thursday.
India’s aspirations suffered a setback, at least in the initial stages, when dependable KL Rahul was ruled out for the opening matches. Rahul, Shreyas Iyer and Jasprit Bumrah are returning after a long injury layoff with Bumrah playing a couple of games in the rain-affected series against Ireland.
While their inclusion has been a topic of debate, the Indian selectors have done the right thing by bringing them back under high-pressure situations as it will test their readiness to the World Cup.
Team India coach Rahul Dravid said at a press conference that Rahul is progressing well from the niggle he picked after recovering from his injury and will be under the National Cricket Academy (NCA) supervision till September 4. “He (KL Rahul) had a good week with us, he is progressing really well on the route that we want to take, but he will be unavailable for the first part of the Kandy leg of the trip. The NCA will be looking after him while we are travelling. We will reassess him on fourth (September 4) and we will take it from there. The signs are good and he is progressing really well,” Dravid said.
Pakistan have the edge
World No 1 Pakistan, on the other hand, will have a huge edge in the continental championship as they have been playing in Sri Lanka, where they will take on India on September 2. Pakistan, who rose to top rank after sweeping Afghanistan 3-0 last week, will stage four matches with the remaining nine, including the final in Sri Lanka.
Pakistan have trialled with a new opening partnership, bringing back the dangerous left-hander Fakhar Zaman in his familiar role. With skipper Babar Azam and the dependable Mohammad Rizwan playing at No 3 and 4, the batting wears a solid look and they have one of the best and varied attack in the world with ace pacer Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah and Harris Rauf all running in with full steam.
Pakistan will show their full might against Nepal, who will get a taste of the top-level competition. The gulf between the Test-playing nations and the Associate Nations might have narrowed in Twenty20 format, but still One-Day Internationals require more experience and the mental strength to go past the hurdle.
Defending champions Sri Lanka, who won the Twenty20 format last year in UAE after stunning India in the Super Four, should be one of the favourites on home conditions. However, the six-time champions have been hit by a spate of injuries and the latest among them is left-arm pacer Dilshan Madushanka, who could face long layoff with a torn oblique muscle during a practice match.
Seamer Dushmantha Chameera will also miss the tournament while ace spinner Wanindu Hasaranga, who played a crucial role in the final against Pakistan last year, will also miss the group stage.
Tamim Iqbal pulls out
Kasun Rajitha, Pramod Madushan, and Matheesha Pathirana are likely to be called in to shore up Sri Lanka’s bowling unit.
Bangladesh also have suffered big blow with skipper Tamim Iqbal missing the showpiece with a back injury. Experienced Shakib Al Hassan has been given the task of giving Tigers their first title after three narrow misses after losing in three finals.
It’s high time Afghanistan do something of note in international arena. They have some world-class players but they are not able to deliver as a unit. Afghanistan were drubbed 3-0 in the series against Pakistan, which might not be the ideal preparation for such a big tournament, with the only saving grace being the century by opener Rahmanullah Gurbaz in the second ODI.