FATULLAH - It would be a trial by fire for Afghanistan when the gutsy team from the strife-torn country makes its Asia Cup debut by taking on defending champions Pakistan in Fatullah on Thursday. Mohammad Nabi's Afghanistan was brought into the Asia Cup after it qualified for the 50-over World Cup scheduled next year. They would look to make a good impression in front of their four sub-continental neighbours, namely India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
The interest that they have managed to generate by their presence notwithstanding, Afghanistan are not expected to go too far in the tournament given that they have played just two one-dayers against Test nations, losing both matches to Pakistan and Australia. That exposure also came way back in 2012 and it would be interesting to see how the minnows have grown since then.
What would count in their favour in the Asia Cup is the team's firm understanding of the local conditions given that eight from the current squad have participated in various domestic competitions here including the Bangladesh Premier League. "Rahmat Shah, Azghar (Stanikzai), Gulbadin Naib, (Mohammad) Shahzad, Shapoor (Zadran), maybe half the team has played in Bangladesh and this is a good experience for them and for Afghanistan," said Nabi, himself a regular at the T20 event.
"We will try our best against every team. There is no target. We will play good cricket and when the time comes we will win," he added. Whatever the end result, Afghanistan are expected to put their best foot forward on the field, making them exciting prospects at the regional mega-event. Pakistan, on the other hand, would have to quickly shake off the disappointment of losing their tournament-opener against Sri Lanka.
The temperamental side was done in by speedster Lasith Malinga's brilliant five-wicket haul under pressure and opener Lahiru Thirimanne's second ODI century as it lost by 12 runs while chasing 297 last night. Barring Umar Akmal (73) and skipper Misbah-ul Haq (74), none of the Pakistani batsman managed to produce innings of substance as the team crumbled despite having a fair shot at victory. The botched chase would have to be erased from the memory pretty quickly for the Pakistanis, who would do well not to underestimate the gritty Afghans. One of the big concerns to emerge for Pakistan in the match was bowling at the start of the innings which allowed Sri Lanka to settle down. "I think at the start we bowled too many bad balls, or boundary balls. If we had bowled a little better then, the 10-15 run margin that decided the game, I think we could have done better," Misbah conceded after the loss yesterday. Given Pakistan's reputation of being unpredictable and Afghanistan's much-appreciated stomach for fight, an interesting contest seems on the cards tomorrow.
PAKISTAN: Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), M Hafeez, Ahmed Shehzad, Sharjeel Khan, Shahid Afridi, Umar Akmal, Sohaib Maqsood, Fawad Alam, Saeed Ajmal, Abdul Rehman, Junaid Khan, Umar Gul, Anwar Ali, Bilawal Bhatti, M Talha.
AFGHANISTAN: M Nabi (capt), Naowroz Mangal, Asghar Stanikzai, Dawlat Zadran, Fazal Niazai, Hamid Hassan, Hamza Hotak, Karim Sadiq, Mirwaiz Ashraf, M Shahzad, Najibullah Zadran, Noor Ali Zadran, Rahmat Shah, Samiullah Shenwari, Shapoor Zadran.