Islamabad, Pakistan – Hosts Pakistan kick off the Asia Cup, taking on tournament debutants Nepal at the Multan Cricket Stadium on August 30 as Asia’s biggest cricket nations fine-tune their preparations ahead of the 50-over World Cup that starts in October.
The 13-match, six-team tournament will be co-hosted by Sri Lanka. The top two sides from the two groups will qualify for the second round where they will play three matches each.
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The top two finishers will vie for the trophy in Colombo on September 17.
Here is how the six teams stack up:
Despite Pakistan officially being the tournament’s co-host, the Indian cricket board’s refusal to play in the country over a lack of green lights by the government means that only four matches will take place in Pakistan.
Of those four, the Pakistan team will be seen in action in two of them – and neither will be the marquee India-Pakistan clash.
The last time Pakistan, two-time Asia Cup winners, played a 50-overs match against India was at the 2019 World Cup.
Since then, Pakistan have won 22 of the 31 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) they have played, including a 3-0 whitewash of Afghanistan earlier this month.
What should motivate captain Babar Azam and his players is that they enter the Asia Cup as the joint top-ranked ODI side. Additionally, Azam sits at the top of the batting chart with teammates Imam-ul-Haq and Fakhar Zaman joining him in the top 10.
But it is their bowling attack that promises to set the pulse racing. With Shaheen Shah Afridi, young tearaway Naseem Shah and the wily Haris Rauf, Pakistan possess arguably one of the best bowling attacks in world cricket.
Pakistan’s first opponent in Group A is Nepal, who are playing their first Asia Cup. Wednesday’s tournament opener will also be the first time Nepal take on Pakistan in any format.
Nepal have played 51 ODIs since the 2019 World Cup, rapidly ascending the ranks and now sitting 15 in the global rankings despite having gained ODI status only in 2018.
While political rivalry, and its repercussions, take more attention in the lead-up, the Indian cricket team will be keen to ensure they put all that behind before the first of what could be three India-Pakistan matches at the Asia Cup on September 2.
It has been over a decade since India won a global cricket tournament, but they are the most successful side in the Asia Cup’s history with seven trophies, the last of those coming in 2018.
Rohit Sharma’s side will hope to continue warming up nicely for the World Cup that will be played in front of a home crowd.
In addition to current captain Sharma and champion batter Virat Kohli, a lot of focus will be on fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah, who is on a comeback trail following multiple injury setbacks.
He captained a second-string Indian side during a short trip to Ireland, where he bowled with his trademark pace and swing.
The plucky Afghans have a team that can arguably beat any opponent on any given day. However, the mental ability and game awareness to seal those wins are often found wanting.
Placed alongside Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the Afghan side will need to ensure they win both matches and hope to take that momentum into the second round.
In Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Fazalhaq Farooqi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi, they have experienced, quality players who have gained ample experience in various T20 leagues across the world.
But the Afghan fortunes will revolve around their crown jewel and perhaps the greatest Afghan player of all time, Rashid Khan.
The leg-spinning all-rounder remains the fulcrum for the Afghan team, and his infectious nature and buzzing personality will be key, along with his whizzing deliveries, to propel Afghans to the next round.
Co-hosts Sri Lanka have a battle on their hands. The six-time Asia Cup champions and the 1996 World Cup winners just about managed to qualify for the 50-over World Cup.
They go into the tournament ranked eighth. Leg-spinning all-rounder Wanindu Hasaranga remains their only player of note who is ranked in the top 10 list of best all-rounders.
But he is unlikely to participate in the tournament due to injury, and it is expected that the Sri Lankan management will not risk him before the World Cup.
The defending Asia Cup winners will open their tournament on Thursday against Bangladesh.
For a team that has been participating in the Asia Cup since its second edition in 1986, Bangladesh have been losing finalists three times.
In Shakib Al Hasan, Bangladesh has their captain, talisman, and country’s greatest cricketer, ranked as the number one all-rounder in the ODIs.
He is ably supported by 25-year-old right-hander Mehidy Hasan Miraz, who is also in the top 10 ranking list of all-rounders.
But questions remain about who else is going to stand up and be counted once they open their tournament against joint host Sri Lanka on August 31.