Having already booked a place in the Asia Cup final, India will hope their untested middle-order finally gets some game time when they take on ever-improving Afghanistan in their third and final Super Four clash at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium on Tuesday.
After their unimpressive, yet winning, start against Hong Kong, India have looked authoritative in the next three games. They thumped Pakistan by eight wickets in the group stage before strolling to a seven-wicket victory against Bangladesh in their first Super Four encounter. Then they again brushed aside Pakistan by nine wickets on Sunday to confirm their place in the finale.
Chasing 238, India rode on Rohit and Shikhar Dhawan's centuries to get the job done with more than 10 overs to spare. This has largely been the story of India in this event. The bowlers haven't allowed opponents to score big, and whatever little has been offered on the plate, the opening duo of Rohit and Dhawan have taken care of it.
In total, Dhawan (327 runs) and Rohit (269) have done the bulk of the scoring in the four games so far, while Rayudu has 116 runs, only because he comes to bat at No. 3. India's top-order has been in spectacular form but the likes of MS Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik and Kedar Jadhav have hardly got any chance to test their skills on the middle.
If we throw in some more numbers, Rohit and Shikhar have so far faced 284 and 321 deliveries respectively, while the next best Rayudu has played 162 balls. And now compare it to Karthik (78 balls), Dhoni (40 balls) and Jadhav (27 balls).
India can be found wanting if the top-order collapses in the final against either of Pakistan or Bangladesh, who will play a shootout on Wednesday. This is exactly what happened in the 2017 Champions Trophy where India's top-order scored tons of runs in the tournament but crumbled in the finale against Pakistan which led to their downfall.
More importantly, India need to finalise their No. 4 as soon as possible. It was Dhoni who came out to bat at that position against Bangladesh and the team management should give the Ranchi stalwart enough games to make himself comfortable at No. 4. The likes of Jadhav, Karthik and Ravindra Jadeja can bat around Dhoni, and if set, we all know about the damage the wicketkeeper-batsman can cause in the last few overs.
The Indian captain might also look to bat first if he wins the toss as that will give his team the entire 50 overs. India won't have it easy against the Afghanistan spin trio of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi, but maybe that's exactly what they want at this time. It's also very unlikely India will make any changes in the batting department considering the middle-order has hardly got any game time. They might rest one of Dhawan or Rayudu to bring in KL Rahul just to offer him a game.
In the bowling department, all of Bhuvneshwar Kumar (seven wickets), Jasprit Bumrah (four wickets), Yuzvendra Chahal (five wickets), Kuldeep Yadav (five wickets) and Jadeja (four wickets) have been consistent. However, India might look to give Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah some rest ahead of the final. Then two among Deepak Chahar, Siddharth Kaul and Khaleel Ahmed can take their spots in the playing XI for the game.
Meanwhile, it has been a so-close-yet-so-far sort of tournament for Afghanistan. They won both their group games against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh but then lost two close matches in the Super Four. First, they failed to defend ten runs in the last over against Pakistan, and then on Sunday, couldn't score eight runs off the final over against Bangladesh.
Afghanistan came into this tournament with a set game plan and have stuck to it. Their batsmen, especially Hashmatullah Shahidi, have done reasonably well and have given their bowlers 240-260 runs in every game. Afghanistan's bowling attack comprising Rashid, Mujeeb, Nabi, Aftab Alam and Gulbadin Naib has been superb, and they have only lost their last two games due to lack of experience.
Afghanistan might have been knocked out of the event but they still have plenty of life left in them and will want to make sure they don't hand India anything on a silver platter.
India: Rohit Sharma (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Lokesh Rahul, Ambati Rayudu, Manish Pandey, Dinesh Karthik, MS Dhoni (wk), Kedar Jadhav, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Deepak Chahar, Siddarth Kaul, Khaleel Ahmed.
Afghanistan: Asghar Afghan (capt), Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Ihsanullah Janat, Javed Ahmadi, Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Mohammad Nabi, Gulbadin Naib, Rashid Khan, Najibullah Zadran, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Aftab Alam, Samiullah Shenwari, Munir Ahmad, Sayed Shirzad, Sharafuddin Ashraf.
First Published: September 25, 2018, 7:30 AM IST