World Cup 2019: Unbeaten India takes on bottom-placed Afghanistan

India faces Afghanistan on Saturday having won three of of its first four matches, while its opponent is rock-bottom with five losses in five.

After a few contests against tough rivals, India will get a breather when it takes on Afghanistan at the Hampshire Bowl here on Saturday. The ideal setting for an expected triumph, got even better as the sun was out on the match’s eve. The bright light bounced off the pearl white chairs and the pitch imbibed the warmth.

Virat Kohli’s men opted to rest on Friday while Afghanistan limbered up. India is sitting smug with one foot almost in the World Cup semifinals. The Men in Blue hold all the aces and have coped well with setbacks like losing Shikhar Dhawan, who had to leave following a fractured left thumb. The southpaw will be missed but K.L. Rahul has adeptly filled the vacant slot atop the batting tree. There is speculation about a gambit to have a left-right combine as the opening duo with Rishabh Pant walking out with Rohit Sharma but it looks unlikely and Rahul should be the one quelling the initial fires.

Another expected loophole due to Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s strained hamstring, will also be plugged with Mohammed Shami expected to step in. The manner in which Vijay Shankar and Hardik Pandya bowled against Pakistan at Manchester’s Old Trafford last Sunday, gives more options to the Indian captain if and when his frontline speedsters go off the boil. Jasprit Bumrah did deliver a touch short against Pakistan but he could lean upon the cushion of runs provided by Rohit, Rahul and Kohli.

Spinner Kuldeep Yadav’s twin scalps against Pakistan and the manner in which he hoodwinked the batsmen, augured well and slowly India’s attack acquired cohesive potency. South Africa, Australia and Pakistan have been defeated while the rains had the last-word and washed out the match against New Zealand at Nottingham. Kohli’s men are in fine rhythm and even the bumps triggered through losing personnel to injuries, hasn’t had a debilitating effect so far.

Read: Kohli has another Tendulkar record in sight

Afghanistan, meanwhile, is in a tight corner, having lost five games in a row and there were off-field issues like the brawl involving some players and fans at a restaurant in Manchester. The loss to England would rankle be it the 150-run margin, the sixes that Eoin Morgan launched into the skies or the 110 runs which leg-spinner Rashid Khan conceded.   

Most of Gulbadin Naib’s men learnt their cricket from the refugee camps at Peshawar in Pakistan. It bred in them both a steely approach and a willingness to celebrate the small moments. In the lower tier of cricketing nations, Afghanistan had its moments but against fancied opposition, it hasn’t competed. Naib and his fellow batting-mates have to post adequate runs and we are talking about a World Cup which has already witnessed 15 centuries.

The weekend skirmish should follow a predictive path of an Indian victory but the opponent needs to put up a fight. Naib owes it to a strife-torn country that found succour within resilient homes at places ranging from Kabul to Kandahar. Khaled Hosseini, who authored The Kite Runner, once said: “In Afghanistan, you do not live as an isolated person. You are somebody's son, grandson, brother…” There is a clue there for Naib - his troops should compete as a unit.

Match starts at 3 p. m. IST.

The teams (from)

India: Virat Kohli (captain), Rohit Sharma, M.S. Dhoni, K.L. Rahul, Ravindra Jadeja, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, Hardik Pandya, Vijay Shankar, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav and Rishabh Pant.

Afghanistan: Gulbadin Naib (captain), Aftab Alam, Asghar Afghan, Dawlat Zadran, Hamid Hassan, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Hazratullah Zazai, Ikram Ali Khil, Mohammad Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Najibullah Zadran, Noor Ali Zadran, Rahmat Shah, Rashid Khan and Samiullah Shinwari.

Umpires: Aleem Dar and Richard Illingworth; Third umpire: Richard Kettleborough; Match referee: Chris Broad.