Two-horse race

K Shahid feels there are two main contenders as he previews the upcoming Asia Cup 2018

Two-horse race
The Asia Cup 2018 kicks off in the UAE from Saturday, September 15 with Bangladesh taking on Sri Lanka. Pakistan’s opening match would be the next day against Hong Kong. The mouthwatering India-Pakistan clash in on September 19, which could be the first of potentially three Indo-Pak matches in the Emirates this month.

It is the format of the tournament that would make this possible. Initially the teams are drawn into two pools, with Pool A consisting of Pakistan, India and Hong Kong and Pool B with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

If all goes according to paper, it should be Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the next round as two teams from each pool would qualify – although of course Afghanistan are capable of springing up a surprise.

India struggled in England

The next round, the Super 4, sees all four teams play each other once – hence making the second Indo-Pak clash overwhelmingly probable – and the two sides that finish at the top of this pool going on to play the final.

Again, as things stand, the two likeliest sides contesting the final on September 28 appear to be India and Pakistan.

Of course, this isn’t to discount the potential of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, who would think they are in more than a shout of making the final, but it’s evident that there is a clear disparity between the two top sides and the rest of the teams.

Champions Trophy final

It’s almost as if the format of this year’s Asia Cup was designed to maximise the prospect of India-Pakistan clashes, and hence their supremacy on paper could deliver three Indo-Pak matches in the course of a fortnight.

A major loss in what is otherwise a massive event is Indian captain Virat Kohli being rested for the tournament, something that we addressed last week. Surely Asia Cup would’ve been higher on priority than the dead rubber fifth Test in England.

Even so, Kohli or not, India-Pakistan will remain the biggest fixture on the calendar, and given the political disputes continuing to reduce the prospects of a bilateral series between the two countries, an event such as the Asia Cup becomes even more significant.
Not to discount Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, there is a clear disparity between the two top sides and the rest

Pakistan squad: Fakhar Zaman, Imam ulHaq, Shan Masood, Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik, Asif Ali, Haris Sohail, Sarfraz Ahmed, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Hasan Ali, Usman Khan Shanwari, Mohammad Amir, Junaid Khan, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Fahim Ashraf

India squad: Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Lokesh Rahul, Ambati Rayudu, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, MS Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik, Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Axar Patel, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Shardul Thakur, K Khaleel Ahmed

On paper Pakistan look a very well balanced side. Big names like Mohammed Hafeez and Imad Wasim have been dropped – the latter owing to lack of fitness – which underlines that Pakistan no longer shortlists players on pedigree or the past.

Pakistan would have taken a lot of confidence from the tri-series win in Zimbabwe – albeit in the T20 format – after downing Australia to retain the number one ranking in the shortest format. Pakistan’s Champions Trophy win from last year has rejuvenated the ODI side as well, and even though the team was overpowered in New Zealand in the 50 over format earlier this year, it’s clearly a side on the up.

India, meanwhile, have been outdone in England yet again. And even though their mauling too came in a different format, a lot of the same players would be participating in the Asia Cup.

Another major difference between the two sides is the two month rest that Pakistan have had before the tournament, while India would be heading to the UAE immediately from England.

Even so, you never know when India and Pakistan face off. And indeed, the other sides aren’t there to make up the numbers. It’s all to play for!