The absence of regular skipper Virat Kohli and the recent form of Pakistan team have combined to make the upcoming Asia Cup match between the arch-rivals the most even contest in many years, reckons former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar.
Speaking to Firstpost, the ESPNCricinfo expert added that while India would be weakened by Kohli’s non-participation – the prolific middle-order batsman has been rested after a long tour to the UK – it doesn’t make India pushovers.
Opener Rohit Sharma will lead the side in place of Kohli.
“I think the absence of Virat Kohli and Pakistan's current form does make it a very even contest. India-Pakistan matches in the past years have got the hype without any real evenness in the contest. Of late, India have been a far superior side.
“However, these two India-Pakistan matches in the Asia Cup could offer a very close fight between the two sides in many years, because Pakistan are also looking good, and they will be playing in the UAE where they have done very well,” he said.
The two teams last met at the Champions Trophy final in England where Sarfraz Khan’s unheralded side trounced India by 180 runs at The Oval.
India hold a slender 3-2 advantage in the teams’ last five 50-over matches; their two losses include a one-wicket heartbreak in Mirpur at the Asia Cup in 2014 besides the walloping in Champions Trophy final last year.
While India have won the Asia Cup six times – the most by any other team, Pakistan have won their last six One-Day Internationals (ODIs). India, by contrast, lost the three-match ODI series 2-1 after being a game up, before enduring a 1-4 loss in the Test series against England. The failures of Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul – until his final innings’ hundred – were the major talking point of the Tests, but Manjrekar believes the batsmen would not be carrying any scars from the wretched England tour.
“Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have been a formidable opening pair and Dhawan's Test form will have no bearing whatsoever in this format and in these conditions. I think his greatest value to Indian team is in 50-over cricket, not even in T20s. And Rahul got a hundred in his last innings, so his confidence will be very high too. I don’t think there will be any after-effects of what happened in England,” he said.
The former middle-order batsman though conceded that Kohli’s absence will hurt India, but it doesn’t really make them a weak side.
“Virat's absence will deplete the Indian team considerably, but it doesn't make India a weak team. India are still a very good 50-over team and it's a team that is quite versatile. It has performed all over the world.”
Kohli’s spot in the batting order is likely to go to KL Rahul, but it’s after the top three that India’s real problems begin. An unsettled middle-order has been India’s bane in limited-overs’ cricket for a while now, especially with MS Dhoni’s big-hitting powers on the wane and Hardik Pandya still early in his role as a finisher.
Ambati Rayudu, who had a stellar IPL earlier this year, where he amassed 602 runs from 16 matches, is likely to take the number four spot. Rayudu missed the England tour after flunking the Yo-Yo test, and Manjrekar, while backing the right-hander’s selection, feels the Asia Cup will be an important tournament for Rayudu, though not essentially a make-or-break one.
“It's a very important series for Rayudu with World Cup approaching, and I am glad that he has been given this opportunity because he showed in the IPL that he has the game for shorter formats. He was very impressive with his skill and temperament, and it is a good decision to try and see if he can bring the same value to 50-over cricket, especially in the middle order where you need certain smartness. Numbers four and five are crucial spots where you don’t just come out and play through the line. It's about playing the spinners well, taking ones and twos and also having a big gear to up the scoring towards the end. This is where a batsman must have a good range, so I think it's a good selection.”
The number five spot is up for grabs between Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, and Dinesh Karthik, and Jadhav’s low, slingy lobs give him a thin advantage, given the conditions.
“I think India should play both wrist-spinners (Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav) as Pakistan have not really seen them. Hardik Pandya becomes your third seamer and India might also play Kedar Jadhav to bowl a few overs,” Manjrekar said.
‘Need to lower expectations from Dhoni’
Former skipper MS Dhoni has blown hot and cold with the bat, scoring just one fifty in his last ten innings. While the wicketkeeper-batsman has, in past, has expressed his desire to bat up the order given his diminishing finishing skills, Manjrekar feels India would be best served if Dhoni sticks to batting lower down the order.
Further, he said that India’s expectations of Dhoni ought to be more realistic and it’s in his wicket-keeping that the 37-year-old brings maximum value to the team.
“I prefer him coming down the order with few overs left. I have never been a supporter of him batting at number four. Dhoni is at his best when the fielding sides are saving boundaries and there are not too many fielders in the circle, so he can get going. And then, he feeds off the uncertainty in the opposition in the death overs. He is obviously not as consistent as before, but India's expectations of Dhoni need to come down, and India must be looking for a batsman who can do the Dhoni kind of job consistently.
“He still has a lot to offer as a keeper, especially when you have two game-changing wrist-spinners. Also, I think Virat likes Dhoni as a guy who can supply a lot of intelligence on the field as well. His glovework has become more important for India now, and he was involved a lot in the success of Chahal and Yadav over the past year. As far as batting goes, India must alter their expectations from Dhoni,” Manjrekar said.
India open their Asia Cup campaign against Hong Kong on Tuesday before taking on Pakistan the next day.