On the face of it, this would appear to be a fairly straightforward opening fixture for India in the ICC World Twenty20 2012, but India knows there is nothing straightforward about any opening game in any World Cup.
Afghanistan isn’t expected to, and shouldn’t, stretch the ICC World Twenty20 2007 champion in the opening Group A clash at the R Premadasa Stadium on Wednesday. That said, India will be mindful that it lost its opening game of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2007 against Bangladesh in Port of Spain, a defeat that spelled its exit at the group stage itself from a tournament it had gone into as one of the favourites.
Man for man, India is clearly the superior side, both in terms of skills and experience. Not even the great leveller that the Twenty20 format is, should alter the outcome, but if cricket matches were to be won only on the basis of the respective strengths of sides, we wouldn't ever have had some stunning upsets.
Without underestimating Afghanistan, India will try to iron out a few issues before its next group encounter against England, the defending champion, and the Super Eights starting in just over a week. Quite obviously, it is the bowling in general and the death bowling in particular that will occupy the mind-space of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher, the coach, especially after the inability of the bowling group to defend 185 against Pakistan, at the same venue, in Monday’s warm-up game.
Dhoni made it clear on match-eve that to start with, India would play only four specialist bowlers, relying on its plethora of part-time options to fill in for the fifth bowler. It’s a ploy that might not backfire against Afghanistan, or against other teams, if the four specialist bowlers do their job. Even if one of them has an off-day, Dhoni will be under severe pressure to juggle his resources, no easy task in the frenetic world of Twenty20 cricket.
Traditionally, India has relied on its formidable batting to get the job done History indicates that that strategy has paid dividends. History also suggests that India has benefited equally from having incisive bowling groups – as was evident during title triumphs at the ICC Cricket World Cup 1983 and the ICC World Twenty20 2007.
The onus, therefore, will be on Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan, Lakshmipathi Balaji and R Ashwin, expected to be the four full-fledged bowlers when India sets off in a bid to arrest an alarming trend in ICC World Twenty20s, where it has failed to advance to the knockout stage after its title run in 2007. Afghanistan doesn’t have the most feared or explosive batting line-up; a good outing with the ball will not necessarily indicate a turning of the corner, but if Afghanistan conjures a competitive total, it will add to the concerns of the think-tank.
India’s batting, despite the recent travails of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag, is in relatively good health. Of particular delight to the team management that has unwaveringly kept faith in him must be the return to form of Rohit Sharma, severely short of runs and confidence since the start of the season. Along with Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh – hoping to cap his comeback from germ cell cancer with a fairytale finish – and Suresh Raina, Rohit will form the backbone of the middle-order, leaving Dhoni as the dangerous floater who will pick his slot depending on the game situation.
Afghanistan has qualified for its second straight ICC World Twenty20 in a stirring tale of grit and the ability to overcome all odds. Just to play in the 2010 event in the West Indies was for it a victory of sorts; it will be aiming for more than just participation this time around, not unaware that up against India and England it has its work cut out, but also not averse to daring to dream.
Afghanistan’s first ICC World Twenty20 encounter was against India, at Gros Islet on Labour Day in 2010. It didn’t end particularly favourably – India ran out seven-wicket victors – but better for the experience now and with seven survivors from that playing XI, Afghanistan will hope, at the very least, to run its Asian neighbours a lot closer.