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27 January 201619:01 By Manoj Narayan, Sylhet

Afghanistan U19 hopes to ride on experience

Pakistan U19 has the wherewithal to come up trumps in first sub-continental derby of tournament

At the picturesque Sylhet International Cricket Stadium, in what is sure to be a foggy, cold Thursday (January 28) morning, a sub-continental derby will be played out when Afghanistan and Pakistan clash in their ICC Under-19 World Cup 2016 opener.

While the result of a clash between a full member side and an Associate side can at times a foregone conclusion, matches involving Afghanistan have tended to be exceptions. In the 2014 edition of the tournament, it beat Australia and Sri Lanka, and lost to West Indies by only nine runs. Four players from that side are in the mix this time too, including Ihsanullah Janat, the captain, and that experience will only serve them well.

Afghanistan prepared for this tournament with a tri-series in Kolkata, against India and Bangladesh, in which it lost all four matches. However, it then beat Zimbabwe 4-0 at its adopted home in India, in Greater Noida. In its two warm-ups in Bangladesh thereafter, Afghanistan had mixed results – it eased past fellow Associates Ireland by 126 runs, but then lost by a narrow 13-run margin to New Zealand, its batsmen failing to chase down 213.

Afghanistan boasts a solid side. Ihsanullah scored a fine 125-ball 133 in the game against Ireland, and in the match before that against Zimbabwe in India, he had a half-century, which marked a return to form after a poor run. There is also the considerable threat of Zahir Khan, the chinaman bowler, who returned 5 for 30 against New Zealand, and will hope to get some purchase off pitches known to be favourable to spinners after the early periods. Rashid Khan, the leg-break bowler who has already made his international debut for the senior side, will also pose a significant threat.

Pakistan, meanwhile, is one of four teams in the tournament to field a set of players with no past experience in the tournament. Ihsanullah hoped Afghanistan would capitalise on the inexperience. “Pakistan have a good team, but all their boys are new players,” he said. “It will be difficult for them to play such big matches with new boys.

“We’ll have some benefits because we have some players who already have the experience of playing in this tournament before. It’ll help the team a lot. We’ll try our best. We won’t take anything for granted … it’ll be a good match.”

But for all of Afghanistan’s giant-killing hopes, Pakistan will be motivated by the fact that it is back in Bangladesh, where it won the first of its two U-19 World Cup trophies back in 2004. Gauhar Hafeez, its captain, revealed that the team had spoken to stars of that win ahead of the trip to Bangladesh. “We’ve come here with the same aim,” stated Gohar. “We spoke to Anwar Ali bhai, Sarfraz Ahmed bhai and others, and they told us about the conditions here. They said play as a team, gel as a team, and you can cross any difficult situation.”

In its warm-ups, Pakistan eased past Nepal but its batsmen struggled against India. Khaleel Ahmed, the left-arm pacer, took 5 for 30 as India shot Pakistan out for 197 on its way to a comfortable five-wicket win. It was a hard loss to stomach, but despite that, Gauhar insisted that there were positives to be derived. “The positives we took are that India didn’t give us a tough time,” he said. “Our batsmen threw their wickets away, they didn’t take responsibility and that is why we lost. It wasn’t because India gave us a difficult time.”

Perhaps the loss had nothing to do with it, but on Wednesday, Pakistan went through a particularly intense training session. While the batsmen ploughed away and took turns at the nets, others were made to sweat it out with fielding practice that lasted the duration of the whole two-and-a-half-hour session.

Pakistan will take heart from the fact that, in similar conditions in the UAE, it emerged victorious in a tri-series against Australia and New Zealand – both strong sides. It lost the first two matches of the series, but came fighting back with successive victories to seal a big win.

It was put to Gauhar that Afghanistan might prove hard to break down given that little was known about it, but he insisted that wasn’t the case. “They are Asian teams,” he said. “We have an idea as to what type of team they are, what their strengths are. During the series in the UAE, Australia and New Zealand were both good teams, but we played well and our bowling was good – we know these conditions well, we keep playing in Asia.”

It is a match hard to call. Afghanistan has genuine hopes of progressing from Group B – a tough group that also comprises Sri Lanka and Canada – and that involves beating one of the two biggies. A slip-up, however, can prove irreversible, especially given the short-and-sweet format of the tournament.

Teams (from):
Pakistan: Gauhar Hafeez (capt), Muhammad Asad, Saif Ali, Saif Badar, Sameen Gul, Salman Fayyaz, Shadab Khan, Hasan Khan, Irfan Liaqat, Hasan Mohsin, Umair Masood, Zeeshan Malik, Arsal Sheikh, Ahmad Shafiq. Mohammad Umar.

Afghanistan: Ihsanullah Janat (capt), Zia-ur-Rehman Akbar, Zahir Ahmadzai, Qais Hassan, Karim Janat, Ikram Ali Khail, Shamsurrahman Wali Khail, Zahir Khan, Muslim Musa, Nijat Masood, Parwiz Malikzai, Nasir Omar, Naveed Obaid, Waheed Shafaq, Tariq Stanikzai.