Dubai: At the time of writing, Sri Lanka were well on their way out of the Asia Cup on only Day Three of the tournament. It made for some wonderment as to the haphazard nature of the scheduling — Sri Lanka played two games in three days, Bangladesh and Pakistan play two games with four and three days’ gaps respectively, and India will play back-to-back matches this week.
Multi-team tournaments are the way forward for limited-overs’ cricket, yet nonsensical scheduling — whether for the ODI World Cup or Asia Cup — are holding back their case. We are in 2018, and there is an international team slated to play two 50-over matches within 48 hours. Why couldn’t have Bangladesh and Afghanistan played on Wednesday, with the India-Pakistan clash then taking place on Thursday?
This is the over-bearing thought as the Men in Blue got down to serious business ahead of their tournament opener versus Hong Kong. Six of their players — KL Rahul, Dinesh Karthik, Hardik Pandya, Shardul Thakur, Shikhar Dhawan and Jasprit Bumrah — only arrived in Dubai on Sunday evening, and will head into Tuesday’s game with a single practice session under their belts.
MS Dhoni was part of the Indian team that last played here in the UAE twelve years ago, when they played against Pakistan at Abu Dhabi. Additionally, most of these Indian players have had a taste of UAE conditions in 2014, when one half of the Indian Premier League was hosted here. Even so, with the ever-changing setting in international cricket, it is more and more difficult to adapt to conditions quickly enough, and we have already witnessed that with Indian players in South Africa and England this year.
UAE brings its own set of challenges, with energy sapping humidity in the afternoon. There are a plethora of T20 tournaments (and one T10 event) lined up for the winter months, but the Asia Cup has arrived a little too early for cooler temperatures. 40 degrees Celsius is the norm still, albeit it shouldn’t be a problem for Indian players. Again though, it is that stifling humidity which is a bigger factor, given that the Men in Blue will play back-to-back matches.
It puts the Hong Kong game in perspective. Tuesday isn’t really about playing the minnows, or what they can do against the powerhouse of world cricket. Rather, it is about how much energy can India save in getting past this minor hurdle (no disrespect!) and simultaneously prepare for the intense clash against Pakistan. Perhaps, the biggest question herein is regarding team selection — do the Men in Blue pick their best eleven or rest a few key players ahead of Wednesday’s clash?
The team selection quandary is an odd one. Star Sports, the official broadcaster, are already upset that India haven’t got Virat Kohli in their ranks. With the Lankans playing two listless games and Pakistan trampling Hong Kong, a second-choice Indian eleven on Tuesday might just drive someone at Star’s headquarters over the edge. Of course, as the BCCI pointed out, there is nothing they can do about it, and rightly so.
Even so, it still leaves us with the selection, and it will be particularly interesting to see how the team management goes about lining up that middle-order. Kohli’s absence could help Rahul occupy the number three slot, albeit ruling him out of the number four situation — he simply cannot be a back-up opener and middle-order batsman at the same time.
Over the last two months there has been so much noise about Ambati Rayudu’s omission from the England squad that it is a given he will bat at number four. Let it be said here though failing the Yo-Yo test was his fault. How can a professional cricketer, who had just finished with a hectic IPL season and had nearly 10 days before the test, not clear the same ahead of an important tour?
Rayudu’s slip-up meant that both Rahul and Karthik were tested in England, and conclusions were drawn. The latter did well in Leeds, even if he did get out at the wrong time. Since then though, he has lost all confidence after a poor Test series and ought to be out of running for number four at present. Instead, he will joust with Manish Pandey and fit-again Kedar Jadhav for number six spot.
Both Rayudu and Jadhav can turn their arms over, and in UAE’s sweltering heat along with its dry pitches, they will be useful in backing up Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. India will possibly line-up a full-strength bowling attack, but it remains to be seen if Jasprit Bumrah will sit out this first game on account of his recent heavy workload in England.
It will allow a look at 20-year-old exciting left-arm prospect Khaleel Ahmed, as there is a dire need of expanding India’s pace reserves in the build-up to the World Cup. In that light, Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s return to international cricket will also be closely monitored with another heavily packed season in the offing.
Ironically, it all starts over again with a paltry opposition like Hong Kong on Tuesday. India will only be hoping to make quick work of them, like Pakistan did on Sunday.
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