Asia Cup: With stronger teams, tricky format, India's real test ahead of World T20 begins now
Against a strong South Africa side last year, India had just started gelling as a unit but having got into the groove, this is the real test before the World T20.
A year ago, with one eye on the World T20, one of India's major concerns was the dearth of T20Is they had played. After the one-off T20I against England, in September 2014 there was a gap of 10 months before they played another, against Zimbabwe - a two match series where a relatively second string side drew 1-1.
The real preparations for the World T20 began in earnest with the home series against South Africa in October last year. They faced a strong South African unit and lost 2-0 in the three match series with one match abandoned. It was after a long time that the first string side had played together in T20Is - more than a year - and the rustiness was palpable.
The run up to the preparation for World T20 then included a couple of bilateral T20I series - first against Australia and then Sri Lanka. India lost the ODI series on the Australia tour but bounced back to whitewash the hosts 3-0 in the T20I series. India might have crushed Australia, however it needs to be taken into account that Australia had fielded a relatively weak side. They were hampered by injuries. Star bowler Mitchell Starc was absent. Their marquee players were rested at crucial junctures which raised questions about their atttitude and seriousness towards the shortest format. They were still trying to figure out their best eleven and that affected their performance big time. 19 players were used in all in the series - the most used by one side in a series and only Shane Watson and Chris Lynn were a part of all the three games.
Of course, this is not to take away the credit from India but just that it wasn't a real test for them.
Next up was the home series against Sri Lanka. When the squads were announced, everyone knew who the favourites were. Sri Lanka had pretty much fielded a second string side with the likes of Lasith Malinga, Angelo Mathews, Nuwan Kulasekara and Rangana Herath missing due to injuries. Even Tilekaratne Dilshan was only fit enough for two matches. It was a very inexperienced squad led by Dinesh Chandimal.
They did manage to give India a wake-up call in the first T20I bundling them out for 101 and winning the first T20I but their inexperience was palpable in the next two matches as the batsmen batted irresponsibly and threw away their wickets. The spinners too couldn't purchase much on the same turning tracks where the Indian spinners wreaked havoc. They subsequently lost the next two matches comprehensively.
Again, not to take anything away from India's (eventually clinical) performance but this wasn't the sort of Test that awaits them in the World T20. The sort of test that will test them to their limits and guage their real ability ahead of the World T20.
This is what the Asia Cup will bring - the real test. They will be up against three strong teams along with a tricky qualifier who would be looking to get into the groove ahead of the World T20. Sri Lanka are back to full strength with Malinga, Mathews, Herath and Kulasekara returning from injuries. Pakistan edged India in the previous edition of the Asia Cup, and despite that being a 50-over tournament, Afridi's team will pose a formidable challenge. They have a good mix of youth and experience and have warmed up for the Asia Cup with the Pakistan Super League which has provided a much-needed boost to Pakistan cricket.
The last time India visited Bangladesh, they didn't have the best of times either as they suffered an unexpected defeat to the hosts in the ODI series. There has been an amazing turnarond in Bangladesh cricket and they have developed into a strong force in the limited overs in the last couple of years. This along with the support of the passionate home crowd makes them a force to reckon with in the Asia Cup. The qualifier team might prove to be tricky too.
With the shift from the bilateral series into tournament mode, and with the unpredictability factor that comes with facing different teams, this is the perfect dress-rehearsal for India.
Getting into the team composition, the Indian side looks pretty much balanced and the fact that Ajinkya Rahane can't get into the starting eleven only shows the amount of talent at disposal for the Indian team. The top order will be the key. Virat Kohli is back after being rested for Sri Lanka series. Shikhar Dhawan's return to form has provided the team a huge boost.
In the last one year, (since Jan 2015), India's top order averages 39.16, the second highest after New Zealand (48.68). However, the lower and lower-middle order hasn't been tested much. The likes of Yuvraj Singh, Hardik Pandya haven't spent much time in the middle and they would look to make most of the opportinity they get in this tournament.
"As of now it [No.6 and No.7] doesn't seem like [a problem]. Usually six and seven won't or should not get an opportunity. If the team is doing well, I don't think No.6 and No.7 will or should get more than 10 balls or 12 balls and you will have to make the most," MS Dhoni said in the pre-departure press conference.
Ashish Nehra has slowly got into the groove after his comeback and he along with Jasprit Bumrah have taken good care of the pace department. Bumrah's death bowling has solved one of India's major problems. However, as predictable as it gets, India's most lethal weapon will be the spinners with the tournament played on Bangladesh soil.
One of India's worries was it's powerplay bowling during the Australia series but with Dhoni's tactics to hand Ravichandran Ashwin the new ball working wonders in the Sri Lanka series, the off-spinner might prove to be the difference. Ashwin has taken second-most number of wickets in Powerplays in T20Is - 15 at an impressive average of 20.20 and economy rate of 7.04. Ravindra Jadeja will provide a good support and it might not be a surprise if Yuvraj's contribution with the ball proves to be more crucial than the bat. Raina and Pandya too can bowl useful overs in the middle which has provided the all-important balance.
Dhoni had named an unchanged team in all of the three T20Is against Sri Lanka but there are chances we might see some changes in the Asia Cup. "I will try to give everybody a game because it is something as important as playing with a settled team," Dhoni said. "It is important for everybody to have games under their belt," Dhoni said. There are some late concerns over the captain's fitness, with Parthiv Patel being flown in to Dhaka as a precautionary back-up.
India have lost just one of the six T20Is played in Bangldesh. Dhoni said that their top priority is winning matches. Against a strong South Africa side last year, India had just started gelling as a unit but having got into the groove, this is the real test before the World T20. If they continue the momentum and come out unscatched, they will go into the World T20 on the back of tremendous confidence and, despite the format being unpredictable, the tag of clear favourites.
Australia suffered a 3-0 Test whitewash in 2016 when veteran Sri Lankan spinner Rangana Herath claimed 28 wickets to flatten the opposition batting on viciously turning tracks.
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