Asia Cup 2018: India’s search for answers ahead of World Cup
A six-day gap is what India get to adjust to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from the cooler climes of England and face a tough Asia Cup without premier batsman and captain Virat Kohli.
For a team that has not even made it to the final of the 50-over competition in last two editions of the Asia Cup, India is set to be pushed to the limits in a hectic tournament under stand-in captain Rohit Sharma.
India won the T20 Asia Cup in 2016 and are placed in Group A with arch rivals Pakistan and Hong Kong, who made it through a six-nation qualifying round. India start their campaign on September 18 against Hong Kong, and face Pakistan the next day.
For the world No 2 Indian team, the Asia Cup carries immense significance. The tournament is the last multi-nation event before the next year’s World Cup in England, providing them an opportunity to test their physical and mental skills apart from finding answers to questions that have lingered on for long.
Looking for a settled middle-order
A top-heavy Indian ODI side has faltered several times with an unsettled middle-order, and this will be the team’s greatest quest in the UAE. Ambati Rayudu, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik and KL Rahul are the men in contention for the middle-order, with MS Dhoni and Hardik Pandya expected to be carrying the role of finishers.
However, in the absence of Kohli for this series, it also remains to be seen who India entrusts with the No 3 role, with Rohit and Shikhar Dhawan set to be openers.
In-form batsmen Rayudu and Pandey are the frontrunners for the middle-order, whereas Rahul can fit in at No 3 in the absence of Kohli, especially after his encouraging show in England across formats, topped by a splendid 149 in The Oval Test.
Left-arm pacer needed
The Indian selectors have also declared that a spot for left-arm pacer is up for grabs, and untested 20-year-old Khaleel Ahmed is their latest pick in their effort to round-off their bowling attack. A surprise selection call indeed, as India had bestowed the role to domestic veteran Jaydev Unadkat for their last home ODI series against Sri Lanka.
A large chunk of Test-bowling frontline in Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav has been rested for the Asia Cup, with Jasprit Bumrah and a fit-again Bhuvneshwar Kumar — who India dearly missed in the England Test series — to handle the fast bowling attack with Pandya in fray as back-up seamer.
Set the record right
India’s balance as well as firepower makes them favourites for the Asia Cup, but the team that plays 50-over games without enough breaks will also be expected to go all the way.
The heavy defeat at the hands of Pakistan in the 2017 Champions Trophy final still lingers on, and Sri Lanka have also started picking up pace despite their share of struggles. Bangladesh are a challenging side in subcontinental conditions in the ODI format. And Afghanistan, despite their lack of experience, have match-winners like Rashid Khan who will challenge India amply.
There are one-day breaks separating games as the tournament progresses, and in case India top the Group A, they will play their Super Four matches on September 21, 23 and 25. The Asia Cup final will be played on September 28.
India last made it to the final of a 50-over Asia Cup in 2010, and hence will have their task cut without their best batsman.