LEEDS, England: When Pakistan crashed to a stunning three-wicket defeat against Afghanistan in a warm-up game on May 24 in Bristol, their World Cup preparations seemed to be in tatters.
Less than five weeks later, things look completely different as the two teams clash in the World Cup here at a sun-baked Headingley on Saturday.
While Afghanistan have crashed out of the World Cup after suffering seven losses in a row, Pakistan have regained killer form just in the nick of time.
After knocking South Africa out of the tournament and handing New Zealand their first defeat of World Cup 2019, Pakistan are firm favourites to hand Afghanistan their eighth successive defeat in the event.
With the batting duo of Babar Azam and Haris Sohail in full flow and the bowling attack looking good, Pakistan should have an easy sailing against the Afghans, who look low on confidence. A win against them would temporarily propel the Pakistanis to the fourth place on the points table.
It would be a big boost for Sarfaraz Ahmed and Co, who were looking completely down and out after back-to-back losses against Australia and India.
But Pakistan, who need to beat Afghanistan and Bangladesh in their last two group games to have any realistic hopes of qualification, cannot afford any complacency.
Quite like them, the Afghans could be an unpredictable team especially on a Headingley track which is likely to assist their spin twins – Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
Rashid, who has just taken four wickets at 78.5, has had a poor World Cup so far but he is still regarded as one of the world’s best leg-spinners. Together with 18-year-old Mujeeb, he could pose issues for Pakistan.
They would be buoyed up by the memories of last September’s Asia Cup in Abu Dhabi where Mujeeb took 2-33 to almost hand Afghanistan an upset victory against Pakistan.
The toss would be quite important as both teams would want to bat first on a wicket that is expected to become more bowling friendly in the later stages of the match.
After struggling to find their best eleven in the first five games of the World Cup, the Pakistanis finally struck gold at Lord’s against South Africa. They didn’t tinker with the line-up that earned them a much-needed 49 win against the Proteas by fielding an unchanged side against New Zealand.
Pakistan are expected to retain the same eleven even though questions are being asked about the utility of Mohammad Hafeez in the middle-order.
The seasoned Hafeez did hit a match-winning 84 against England but besides that his contribution with the bat has been below par. He has scored 198 runs from six World Cup outings and has time and again failed to capitalise on good starts.
Pakistan could opt to promote the in-form Haris Sohail, who hit back-to-back fifties against South Africa and New Zealand. Haris has provided the team’s batting with a much-needed shot in the arm and could be more useful batting at number 4.
Hafeez, meanwhile, could have a bigger impact in the last ten overs. Since 2017, he has averaged 64.67 with a strike rate of 137.5 between overs 41-50.
Pakistan’s bowling arsenal looks set, finally.
Before the six-wicket win against New Zealand in Birmingham, Mohammad Amir was almost single-handedly providing sting to Pakistan’s bowling. But in a welcome change, young left-arm pacer Shaheen Shah Afridi bowled a sensational spell to derail the Black Caps at Edgbaston.
The duo together with Wahab Riaz form a potent pace attack that should keep Afghanistan’s out-of-sorts batting line-up under pressure. The spin trio of Shadab Khan, Imad Wasim and Hafeez look set to deliver the killer punch on what is likely to be the hottest day of the year.
Pakistan: Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam, Mohammad Hafeez, Haris Sohail, Sarfaraz Ahmed (capt & wk), Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz, Shaheen Afridi
Afghanistan: Gulbadin Naib (capt), Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Asghar Afghan, Samiullah Shinwari, Mohammad Nabi, Najibullah Zadran, Ikram Alikhil (wk), Rashid Khan, Dawlat Zadran, Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
India's top woman discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur faces the prospect of being banned for a maximum of four years if the...
Ancelotti said his players had watched a video before the game, showing eight of Real Madrid’s comebacks this...
Nadal found an opening at 5-5 and broke on his first opportunity, thanks to a long backhand from Kecmanovic
The FairBreak Invitational, featuring Heather Knight, Stafanie Taylor and Sana Mir, opens on Wednesday
Real Madrid secure a 35th La Liga title with four games to spare after a 4-0 home win over Espanyol
Shaheen Shah Afridi is one of 10 Pakistani cricketers who have signed as overseas players for at least part of the...