Senior off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin’s inexplicable absence from the playing XI is in focus as India skipper Virat Kohli tries to figure the combination that can bring his team’s floundering campaign back on track when it takes on a feisty Afghanistan in the T20 World Cup here on Wednesday.
India’s run has been derailed after two crushing defeats against Pakistan and New Zealand and the performance that they have put in is not worthy of a semi-final spot even though mathematics keeps their hopes alive.
Afghanistan has expectedly won their two games against Scotland and Namibia and was in the contest against Pakistan for the better part before Asif Ali took the game away with four sixes in one over.
Against this backdrop, Mohammed Nabi and Rashid Khan would like to use all their might and T20 freelancing experience to add insult to the Indian injury and prolong the nightmare that started on October 24.
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For Kohli, in probably his last three matches as T20 captain of India, one would expect some prudent team selections and it starts with the question of repeatedly ignoring a player of Ashwin’s caliber.
It is unheard of in world cricket that one of the most decorated players among the current generation has been transformed into a glorified traveler since he last wore the national shirt in June.
Ashwin’s entry into the white-ball team after four years was indeed left-field selection and if sources are to be believed, it never had the Indian skipper’s approval.
However, Kohli’s decision to not even consider him as an option is something that many in Indian cricket feel, ”borders on stubbornness” after Varun Chakravarthy’s inability to deliver under pressure proved what experience means.
In terms of talent and skills, none of the spinners in this Indian set-up can come close to Ashwin. The only thing that went against him was his lack of consistency which led to his ouster four years back.
But desperate times call for desperate measures and against Afghanistan, which is not used to facing a spinner of Ashwin’s class, his presence might just prove to be beneficial.
The opening duo of burly left-hander Hazratullah Zazai and the rotund and flamboyant Mohammed Shahzad, who lacks in footwork, might find it difficult to deal with Ashwin’s tricks.
If Kohli once again chooses to keep the Tamil Nadu tweaker out of the mix, the ”outside noises”, which the skipper often describes as ”irrelevant”, along with ”inside voices”, which he can’t ignore, will grow stronger than reasons are non-cricketing.
In terms of cricketing logic, ignoring him would be as difficult as keeping Rohit Sharma away from the opening position, where he belongs.
Afghanistan’s new-ball bowlers — the experienced Hamid Hasan and young Naveen ul Haq — are certainly good but on their day, KL Rahul and Rohit could just send them on a leather-hunt.
After two bad games, that’s exactly what they would want at a new venue (Abu Dhabi).
If Suryakumar Yadav, who is suffering from back spasms, is fit and available, one could find both him and Ishan Kishan playing in the middle-order as the team is hardly getting any tangible benefit from Hardik Pandya’s presence.
A contribution of 31 runs in two games from 35 balls is certainly not something that the Indian team expects from its premier finisher.
Against Afghanistan, the middle-overs, during which the peerless Rashid Khan operates, will be crucial.
Along with Gulbadin Naib, who bowls wicket-to-wicket steady medium pace with an occasional ‘heavy ball’, India might want to play those overs with caution.
They would look to attack Afghan seamers primarily in their bid to ramp up the scoring.
Kohli would like to chase under lights with dew setting in but if he bats first, a middling score of 145 to 155 could spell trouble in case Shahzad starts finding a few of the middle of his bat.
This will be one match where if India wins, they wouldn’t get any credit but if they lose, all hell will break loose.
Squads (from): India: Virat Kohli (captain), Rohit Sharma (VC), KL Rahul, Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, Hardik Pandya, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Rahul Chahar, Varun Chakravarthy, Ravichandran Ashwin Afghanistan: Mohammed Nabi (captain), Hazratullah Zazai, Ahmed Shahzad, Gulbadin Naib, Naveen ul Haq, Rashid Kham, Hamid Hasan, Rahamnaullah Gurbaz, Najibullah Zadran, Karim Janat, Mujeeb ur Rahman, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Fareed Ahmed, Usman Ghani.
Match Starts 7:30 pm IST.