Kolkata: Struggling Sri Lanka would hope to regain their touch as they launch their title defence against qualifiers Afghanistan in the World Twenty20 at the Eden Gardens here on Thursday.
Though the contest may turn out to be a cake walk for Sri Lanka, the unpredictability of the format always keeps cricket buffs guessing.
Sri Lankan cricketers. Pic/ AFP
What would give Afghanistan hope is the fact that Sri Lanka have been struggling recently. They first lost a series 1-2 in India last month and then surrendered to Bangladesh and Pakistan in the Asia Cup. The islanders' tune-up for the ongoing tournament has also been disappointing, as they succumbed to both New Zealand and Pakistan in the warm-up games.
Adding to Sri Lanka's concerns is veteran pacer Lasith Malinga. The golden haired talisman has failed to live up to expectations in recent times and quit his post as captain just before the World T20. He is also nursing an injury in his left knee and might not be available for the Afghanistan tie.
One cannot also deny the fact that Sri Lanka are yet to find suitable replacements for players like Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara who were instrumental in winning them the trophy in Bangladesh two years back.
But the islanders' strength lies in their batting and the likes of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Lahiru Thirimanne and Dinesh Chandimal would want to use the first six overs at the flat belter in Eden to pile on the runs and the pressure.
If they are able to post a decent total, the Lankans have the bowling unit to defend it as well, even without Malinga.
Afghanistan's entry to the tournament is no fluke. They have battled hard every time in the qualifiers and have made it to every World T20 after 2010. The icing on the cake was when they made it to the 50-over World Cup in 2015, only two years after being handed the One-Day International status.
The Afghans remained unbeaten in the qualifiers leading up to this tournament and were able to pull out some special performances from the bag during it.
They first beat Scotland where their most trusted batsman Mohammad Shahzad struck a fluent 61. And next they easily skipped past Hong Kong’s challenge, where Shahzad once again was instrumental with a crucial 41. In the last game Afghanistan convincingly beat Zimbabwe by 59 runs to go unscathed in the main round.
But how will the players who learnt their cricket in refugee camps, in a war torn country cope with the likes of Dushmanta Chameera clocking 145 km/ph constantly? They might not have the answer yet but on Thursday all eyes will be on the likes of captain Asghar Stanikzai and Shahzad who have had great runs with the bat in recent weeks.
Besides, Afghanistan have quite a bowling line-up of their own. It might not be the best in the business, but capable enough to do what it is meant to.
Besides the likes of pacers Shapoor Zadran and Dawlat Zadran, the trump card for the Afghans can be 17-year-old leg-spinner Rashid Khan, who was the most successful bowler for his team with six wickets in the qualifiers, and has picked nine wickets in the last five contests.
This is also the first time that the two sides are locking horns in a T20 International.
The Squads (from):
Afghanistan: Asghar Stanikzai (captain), Dawlat Zadran, Hamid Hassan, Mohammad Nabi, Najibullah Zadran, Rashid Khan, Shafiqullah Shafiq, Amir Hamza, Gulbadin Naib, Karim Sadiq, Mohammad Shahzad, Noor Ali Zadran, Samiullah Shenwari, Shapoor Zadran, Mirwais Ashraf
Sri Lanka: Lasith Malinga, Angelo Mathews (captain), Dinesh Chandimal, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Shehan Jayasuriya,Milinda Siriwardana, Dasun Shanaka, Chamara Kapugedera, Nuwan Kulasekara, Dushmantha Chameera, Thisara Perera, Sachithra Senanayake, Rangana Herath, Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Thirimanne