Sharjah Cricket Stadium will become the venue with the highest number of international matches, going past Australia’s Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), when it hosts the first Super 4 clash between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan on Saturday.
The last time these teams met in this Asia Cup, in the tournament opener on August 27 in Dubai, Afghanistan steamrolled Sri Lanka by eight wickets in a stunning all-round show.
Sri Lanka was 5 for 3 in two overs before being bowled out for just 105. Left-arm fast bowler Fazalhaq Farooqi was the chief tormentor with the ball before openers Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Hazratullah Zazai made light work of the chase.
Since then, Afghanistan has beaten Bangladesh in Sharjah by seven wickets, and Sri Lanka edged past Bangladesh by two wickets to advance to the Super 4 stage.
Pacers step up
One good sign for Afghanistan is the performance of its pacers in this edition. “Bowling has always been good for us, but if you look at our side, the fast-bowling department was struggling earlier, but we have good bowlers now,” Rashid Khan had said after Afghanistan’s training session on Thursday.
Farooqi has been a standout performer, with three wickets in two matches at an economy rate of 4.69. Naveen-ul-Haq, with his extra yard of pace and slower ball variations, has complemented him well.
But on a slow Sharjah deck, where the ball doesn’t come on, it’s the Afghan spinners who’ll pose the bigger challenge. Off-spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman is currently the highest wicket-taker of this Asia Cup, with five wickets at an economy rate of 5.00. The threat of Rashid and Mohammad Nabi always looms large.
Sri Lanka bowlers, despite conceding a total in excess of 180, bowled well. In fact, picking wickets at regular intervals helped them keep Bangladesh under 200.
The form of leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga will be a concern - in two matches, he has given 60 runs at an economy of over 8.5 and picked only three wickets. The Sharjah surface will perhaps be more conducive to his bowling.
In the batting department, Afghanistan is reaping the benefits of a firing middle order. Against Bangladesh, after a top-order wobble, Ibrahim Zadran, at 3, and Najibullah Zadran, at 5, forged an unbroken partnership of 69 off 5.3 overs to take Afghanistan home.
The fact that they took responsibility while continuing to play their aggressive brand of cricket augurs well for the side.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, will be buoyed by the run chase against Bangladesh the other night. Kusal Mendis was the star of the match for Sri Lanka with a 37-ball 60, but he was dropped four times. Afghanistan will do well to hold on to the chances.
The weather will be oppressively hot and humid once again.