Even by the standards of Lasith Malinga’s heyday, his returns on Saturday were excellent. He struck twice in his first international over in more than a year, then went on to deliver a full quota of overs without conceding a boundary, while taking two more wickets.
It’s debatable how much of an upset an Afghanistan victory would even be, on Monday. ODIs are, without a doubt, Sri Lanka’s worst format. Over the last 18 months, they have lost half the matches they have played against Zimbabwe, for example, on top of which they have comprehensively lost ODI series against India, Pakistan and South Africa. And although they did win one tri-series involving Bangladesh and Zimbabwe early in the year, Sri Lanka are now reeling after the 137-run pummelling by Bangladesh on Saturday – a game in which long-standing fielding and batting inadequacies were emphatically exposed.They now face the possibility of bowing out of the Asia Cup only three days into the tournament. Even if they beat Afghanistan, their progress into the Super Four is not assured, particularly given the woeful run rate they collected in Saturday’s 137-run defeat. They have to win on Monday, and hope that Bangladesh beat Afghanistan in order to cement a Super Four place.
What will buoy Afghanistan is that they possess the kind of attack that could make Sri Lanka crumble again. Sri Lanka have not played legspin particularly well over the last two years, and who better to exploit that weakness than Rashid Khan? Having watched the Sri Lanka middle order stall against Bangladesh’s finger spin on Saturday, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi might be licking their lips too.
But what makes this game interesting is that Sri Lanka’s bowlers won’t mind the look of Afghanistan’s top order either, which can sometimes be brittle. Importantly for Sri Lanka, all-sorts offspinner Akila Dananjaya will be available for this game, having missed the first match in order to attend the birth of his child, and that is a substantial boon, considering he has been perhaps Sri Lanka’s most consistent player across formats in 2018. Here are two inconsistent batting outfits, and two attacks sprinkled with dynamic bowlers. Perhaps by dint of experience at such tournaments, Sri Lanka have an edge, but it is not much of one.
In the spotlight –
Even by the standards of Lasith Malinga’s heyday, his returns on Saturday were excellent. He struck twice in his first international over in more than a year, then went on to deliver a full quota of overs without conceding a boundary, while taking two more wickets. For much of the last three years, Malinga has been in the low 130kph range, but although he is still sporting a belly as large as it has been, he somehow was getting his speeds back into the 140kph range on Saturday, which makes him a far more threatening bowler. His challenge will be to maintain that intensity across another 10 overs, in the searing heat of the UAE, only 48 hours later.
Right through their victorious ODI and T20 series against Ireland, Afghanistan used young offspinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman as an opening bowler. The results were pretty good – Mujeeb was generally economical with the new ball, and helped ensure that when the team’s primary weapon Rashid came into the attack, the opposition’s top order had not done much damage. Opening with Mujeeb might be a ploy worth trying again, because early on in their innings, the likes of Upul Tharanga and Kusal Perera – who bat in Sri Lanka’s top four – tend to enjoy a little pace on the ball. There are also plenty of left-handers in this Sri Lanka batting order for Mujeeb to bowl at, especially if Niroshan Dickwella replaces a misfiring right-hander.
Team news –
Afghanistan may largely stick to the combination that brought them success in Ireland – though they did switch up their batting order right through that series. They may consider playing a second frontline seamer in Sayed Shirzad, in addition to right-armer Aftab Alam.
Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan celebrates a wicket
1 Mohammad Shahzad (wk), 2 Ihsanullah, 3 Rahmat Shah, 4 Hasmatullah Shahidi, 5 Gulbadin Naib, 6 Asghar Afghan (capt), 7 Mohammad Nabi, 8 Najibullah Zadran/Sayed Shirzad, 9 Rashid Khan, 10 Aftab Alam, 11 Mujeeb Ur Rahman
Sri Lanka will probably swap in Dananjaya for Dilruwan Perera. They might also think about replacing Dhananjaya de Silva with Niroshan Dickwella.
Sri Lanka (possible):
1 Kusal Mendis, 2 Upul Tharanga, 3 Dhananjaya de Silva, 4 Kusal Perera (wk), 5 Angelo Mathews (capt), 6 Dasun Shanaka, 7 Thisara Perera, 8 Suranga Lakmal, 9 Akila Dananjaya, 10 Amila Aponso, 11 Lasith Malinga
Pitch and conditions
The temperature in Abu Dhabi is forecast to be a shade more forgiving than it has been in Dubai, by which I mean it is supposed to be in the 30 degrees range rather than the low forties. It is possible dew could form after nightfall, perhaps making the ball slightly harder to grip for the team bowling second.
Stats and trivia
Sri Lanka have won both of their matches against Afghanistan so far, with the second of those wins having been a narrow four-wicket victory at the 2015 World Cup
Rashid Khan has gone wicketless only once in his last 22 bowling innings in ODIs, picking up three five-wicket hauls in that time
Kusal Mendis has now gone 19 completed ODI innings without making a half century. His last fifty came against Zimbabwe in June last year
“We don’t start off competitions well, and that has been evident in the last seven months. If you take the tour to Bangladesh, we lost the first two games. Then against South Africa in the first ODI we lost something like five wickets for 30 runs. We lost 60 for six yesterday. When they are under pressure, the batsmen lack options and clarity. The decision making becomes poor and they lack confidence. We need to make their mental aspect right.”
Sri Lanka batting coach Thilan Samaraweera