Monday, February 24, 2014

Asia Cup 2014 Preview

The cricket calendar barely gives enough time for fans and players to breathe. Post-mortems for India’s recently concluded tour to New Zealand haven’t been completed, while Sri Lanka and Bangladesh just finished a series of close matches that ideally deserved more time to be cherished by both team’s fans. In stead, the aforementioned trio of sub continental teams along with Pakistan and Afghanistan turn their attention to the 2014 Asia Cup, as the non-stop world of cricket churns out one marquee tournament after the other. Here, I provide my preview for the five participating teams who will battle it out to be Asia’s best over the next fortnight in Bangladesh.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka come into the tournament in fine fettle, winning all three series on their tour to Bangladesh. The obvious added bonus of the tour that just finished on the weekend is that next to the hosts, the islanders will have gained the most familiarity with conditions on and off the pitch in Bangladesh. Angelo Matthews and his men will also be looking to improve on their performance in 2012, when they failed to win a single match despite being heavily fancied. This will probably be the last Asia Cup for some of their veterans, and with new talent slowly beginning to make their mark, Sri Lanka will be confident of having an excellent campaign this time around.

Strengths:

The experience, explosiveness and class of their fabled batting duo – Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane. In the absence of Tillakaratne Dilshan, the two legends will be relied upon to provide solidity in the middle order. If the two click in the same innings, it’s highly unlikely Sri Lanka will lose any match. Angelo Matthews and Dinesh Chandimal, captain and vice-captain respectively, can be counted to keep a cool head in the later stages of the innings, especially when things get close.

Lasith Malinga’s bowling in the death overs and the ability to surprise opposing batsmen with his variation at any stage of the innings will be Sri Lanka’s crucial weapon in the field. Thisara Perera will provide the x-factor with both ball and bat, especially if he hits a purple patch in either discipline.

Weaknesses:

Other than the series victory over Bangladesh, Angelo Matthews hasn’t claimed many significant victories since taking over as captain. Matthews has the temperament to become one of his nation’s best cricketers. The jury is still out on how that translates to captaincy, but there will be pressure on his young shoulders as fans yearn for an overdue international tournament victory.

Other than Malinga, the bowling attack is pretty weak. Suranga Lakmal hasn’t translated glimpses of potential into sustained success, while Ajantha Mendis no longer possesses the mystery that helped Sri Lanka win the Asia Cup in 2008. Sachitra Senanayeke will likely struggle against India and Pakistan, hence the skipper and Thisara Perera will have to contribute with the ball considerably for the attack to have any zip.

Key Players:

Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardane, Lasith Malinga, Thisara Perera

India

After not winning a single ODI on their tours to South Africa and New Zealand, India enter the tournament under substantial pressure. However, not many teams master conditions in the subcontinent like India do, and under the captaincy of the colossal Virat Kohli, fans will expect nothing less than victory. A batting line-up that is the envy of the world ostensibly makes India favourites, however bowling vulnerabilities could undermine the team.

Strengths:

Since opening the batting together for the first time in India’s successful Champions Trophy campaign last year, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have arguably become the best opening pair in ODI cricket. There aren’t many words left to describe Virat Kohli’s combination of artistry and ruthless consistency. The top three can take the game away from the opposition within a span of 15 to 20 overs.

A middle order of Ajinkya Rahane, Ambati Rayudu and Dinesh Karthik isn’t one to be scoffed at either. Further down the order, expect Ravindra Jadeja and Stuart Binny to provide fireworks galore in the slog overs. Batting is by far India’s greatest strength, though Mohammed Shami’s ability to swing the ball at pace might have a significant role to play in the team’s success. Jadeja’s ability to get big wickets at crucial times will also be key.

Weaknesses:

While no chase is beyond their batsmen, no target is truly safe for India’s bowlers. The aforementioned Shami has had a good start to his international career, but this will be the first time he will be bowling in ODI’s on the batting friendly pitches of the subcontinent. Bhuvneshwar Kumar can be potent with the new ball, but is easy to hit in the slog overs. The rest of the attack with the exception of the wily Jadeja, are all fair game for opposing batsmen.

Virat Kohli can be relied to lead with example as far as his batting is concerned. However, in all the excitement to see how India will do under his leadership, the fact is that Kohli hasn’t captained internationally in such an important tournament. Not that the IPL is necessarily a barometer for captaincy in international cricket, but the fact that the Royal Challengers have failed to make the playoffs the last two seasons under Kohli’s leadership despite having the most explosive batting line-up, suggests that there maybe some tactical limitations on display.

Players to watch out for:

Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja, Shikhar Dhawan

Pakistan

The defending champions enter their first ODI assignment of the year, after having a stellar 2013 in the format. An incredible bowling attack allied with Misbah-ul-Haq’s astute leadership has resulted in Pakistan becoming a formidable ODI unit. The team enjoys playing in Bangladesh, and will look to repeat their success of 2012, though batting vulnerabilities could haunt them.

Strengths:

Few teams have the luxury of variety that Pakistan’s bowling attack possesses. Junaid Khan’s incisive swing with the new ball seems to guarantee at least one wicket if not more in the opening overs. Umar Gul provides the experience at the other end, while all-rounders Bilawal Bhatti and Anwar Ali have shown promise in their nascent careers.

That being said, Pakistan’s greatest asset in the subcontinent is the miserly bowling of Mohammed Hafeez and Saeed Ajmal. Ajmal can be called upon to bowl at any stage of the innings, and not many batsmen will have success negating the wily off spinner. On his day Shahid Afridi can cause havoc with his leg spin, completing the comprehensive nature of the attack.

Weaknesses:

Despite conditions likely to favour batsmen, one simply can’t make any guarantees on behalf of the Pakistani batsmen. Mohammed Hafeez had a stellar series against Sri Lanka in December, scoring three centuries. However, there have been too many false dawns with Hafeez, and it’s likely that Misbah will be called upon to contribute in the middle order in the measured manner that is the antithesis of the rest of the team. Shoaib Maqsood looks to be a better batsman than most recent debutants for Pakistan, but is still inexperienced.

Umar Akmal will be hit and miss in the lower middle order, while Afridi’s contributions with the bat, if any at all, should only be considered a bonus. The aforementioned Bilawal Bhatti and Anwar Ali have played a couple of decent knocks in the lower order, however a quick collapse of the tail can’t be ruled out on any given day.

Key Players:

Mohammed Hafeez, Misbah-Ul-Haq, Junaid Khan, Saeed Ajmal

Bangladesh

The heartbreak of losing the 2012 final by two runs at home is still fresh in the minds of Bangladesh’s cricketers and fans alike. In an ideal world, Bangladesh would approach this year’s tournament with confidence considering they are the hosts. However, the team suffered psychologically in the limited overs leg of the series against Sri Lanka, contriving to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on a few occasions. Adding to the fragility is the absence of their two most dynamic ODI players – Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al-Hasan to injury and suspension respectively. It’s unlikely that the hosts are going to repeat their 2012 heroics.

Strengths:

The fact that they will be playing in front of sell-out crowds backed by one of the most vociferous supporters in the sport. If Bangladesh could rouse themselves on the back of the crowd, inspired performances could lead the Tigers to some big upsets.

A young and deep batting line up. The absence of Tamim and Shakib will certainly be felt, however Bangladesh are not lacking for options. Leading from the front will be skipper Mushfiqur Rahim, while youngster Mominul Haque and Nasir Hossain have already played match-winning knocks for the Tigers. Sohag Gazi and Mashrafe Mortaza can provide the fireworks in the slog overs.

Weaknesses:

Despite their batsmen being extremely talented, they are prone to lapses in concentration as well as being guilty of throwing their wickets to rash shots in tense situations.

Mortaza isn’t the bowler he once was, and with Shakib missing for the first two matches, veteran Abdur Razzak will shoulder a big burden when it comes to spin. Gazi has potential, but tends to try too much, while Rubel Hossain can be erratic and easy to punish.

Key Players:

Mushfiqur Rahim, Mominul Haque, Abdur Razzak, Nasir Hossain

Afghanistan

By participating in the tournament, one gets the feeling Afghanistan, and by extension the sport of cricket are already winners. The players are extremely excited and will be keen to make an impression. However, the joviality of the occasion should not mask the hard work and pride that the players put into their efforts, and it would not surprise me in the least if Afghanistan win at least one match against their more storied opponents.

Strengths:

The impressive leadership of captain Mohammed Nabi. Afghanistan’s leader is an expert at rallying his troops, equally at home being stern when the team’s standards drop and cajoling the best out of his peers in tough situations. Expect Shapoor Zadran to bowl some nasty spells against illustrious batsmen, while Dawlat Zadran will contribute with both bat and ball. Nawroz Mangal will provide ballast down the order, and don’t be surprised if Asghar Stanikzai attempts some audacious shots.

Weaknesses:

Of course this has to be taken in the context of how far they have come, and how far they still have to go. The fielding is a big worry. Not that dissimilar to their neighbours, Afghanistan tend to undo a lot of their hard work with schoolboy fielding and elementary errors. Big match temperament is also a concern, but they can hardly be faulted considering their inexperience when it comes to playing against the world’s best.

Key Players:

Mohammed Nabi, Nawroz Mangal, Shapoor Zadran, Dawlat Zadran
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