The recently reinstated Mohammad Shahzad provides Afghanistan plenty of firepower up the order © Chris Whiteoak
A maiden Asia Cup appearance was the result of wowing a very small but influential crowd. Successful talks with the BCCI and the SLC placed Afghanistan as the fifth member in the 2014 edition and the team shook the world, beating hosts Bangladesh and registering their first win against a Test-playing nation. This time, Asghar Stanikzai and his men don’t need the leg up. They will get the chance to make their own arguments in the qualifying leg of the Asia Cup 2016, and are favourites to win it.
The squad is as strong as any Afghanistan have had. Shapoor Zadran returns and that tall glass of protein shake will also invigorate Dawlat Zadran, whose 18 wickets at an average of 15.50 since January 2015 puts him second on the global wicket-takers’ list in T20s. Mohammad Shahzad has been reliable and electric. Former captain Mohammad Nabi has kept his form up in the Pakistan Super League, while palling around with his Quetta Gladiators team-mates Kevin Pietersen and Kumar Sangakkara. The experience he has gained will come in handy for Afghanistan – Samiullah Shenwari will be key in this regard as well – considering they have dropped former captain Nawroz Mangal.
Watch out for: That first big hoick from Mohammad Shahzad which leaves the bowler on the fritz. Sometimes even the best laid plans end up about as clever as a lion tamer learning his craft by watching cat videos on YouTube. His brute strength can be a daunting prospect to face first up, as Zimbabwe found out when he smashed 118 off 67 balls, the highest score by an Associate batsman in T20Is.
Form Guide (Last five completed T20Is): WWWWL. They won back-to-back series, away and in the UAE, over Zimbabwe in 2015-16.
Amjad Javed will play a crucial role with bat and ball for UAE © Getty Images
United Arab Emirates
Not new to the Asia Cup, but would like to savor the novelty of winning a game in the tournament. UAE have had four tries – in 2004 and 2008 – and none have been successful. Back then it was all going in a downward trajectory, but recently they’ve managed to swing up a few times. Two days ago, they squared a two-match T20I series after going 1-0 down against Ireland by defending 133.
They may not be a bunch of superstars, nor can they make the competition nervous simply by rocking up for work, but they are an industrious team with a tendency to surprise. Take Shaiman Anwar for example: he finished as the top-scorer from the Associates at the 2015 World Cup – 311 runs, six more than Virat Kohli. Pinning performances like that for longer, with other departments, especially their fielding, dovetailing together has been a virtue UAE are yet to master.
Watch out for: Amjad Javed left his home shores with the words, “if God would give me the chance to play cricket for UAE, I wanted to become like Imran Khan.” As luck would have it, he is playing cricket for UAE, well into his 30s, as an allrounder, and is now their captain. He has the mettle to withstand the pressure of a collapse in the middle order, as he showed against West Indies in the World Cup, and can summon the kind of discipline with his medium-pace to have an economy rate under 8 in Twenty20 cricket.
Form Guide (Last five completed T20Is): WLWLW, which comes after a string of six straight losses
Hong Kong’s Mark Chapman is the youngest batsman to score an ODI century on debut © ICC/Sportsfile
Another alumni of Asia Cups past (2004 and 2008), although digging into the yearbook would show them to be the pimply-faced kid photographed with eyes half-closed. Hong Kong weren’t defeated so much as dismantled in four matches; they batted second every time and fell over 100 runs short each time. Their first order of business may well be to not look so out of place this time.
They are not really all that far from accomplishing that. They beat Bangladesh, memorably, at the 2014 World T20, and then beat Afghanistan in a last-ball thriller at the World T20 qualifier last July to punch their ticket for the 2016 event. They’ve built themselves a home ground in Mong Kok, and the team registered wins in the first-ever ODI and T20I played there. Those are signs of growth, and this year’s Asia Cup will test how much further Hong Kong are willing to reach.
Watch out for: In most Associate teams, expatriates provides considerable firepower but Hong Kong have found that in a homegrown talent – Mark Chapman. Born to a father from New Zealand and a Chinese mother, Chapman, the second-youngest batsman to score an ODI hundred on debut, is an exciting prospect. Still only 21 – he was 20 when he struck that unbeaten 124 against UAE in Dubai – he has the chance not only to build his team’s success but also to increase the local following for cricket in Hong Kong.
Form Guide (Last five completed T20Is): LWWWL. They have a 2-1 advantage over Afghanistan
Munis Ansari doesn’t quite gallop to the crease in the same way, but his slingy action has earned him the nickname ‘Malinga’ © ICC/Sportsfile
The debutants, but lots of them should feel reasonably at home. The Oman team is built around players who were born in India and Pakistan. They are still very new to cricket – a debut in 2007 and 41 matches in limited-overs cricket till date – but there have been a few momentous ones. Like back-to-back upsets in the World T20 Qualifier: Oman beat Netherlands and stunned Afghanistan a day later, paving the way to gaining a place in the T20I rankings.
Jatinder Singh, the 26-year old batsman, provides the bulwark at No. 3 and was Oman’s top-scorer in the World T20 qualifier. They are not short on spin resources either. Aamir Kaleem, the vice-captain, Ajay Lalcheta and Zeeshan Mahmood are all left-arm spinners – fitting for a tournament in Bangladesh, whose best player also practices the same art.
Form Guide (Last five completed T20Is): LLLWL. They haven’t played a single T20I since November 2015, though.
Watch out for Munis Ansari a.k.a Malinga. The 29-year old seamer doesn’t quite gallop to the crease, but the slingy arm has led Oman to some shock victories. His T20I best of 4 for 15 came against Netherlands, who were bundled out for 135 in the World T20 Qualifier. Oman overhauled it with six wickets to spare.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo