MS Dhoni was conspicuous by his absence as the Indian team arrived for training in Fatullah on Friday. Don’t read too much into it though. India’s limited-overs captain is nursing a bad back and judiciously managing his body. At this stage of his career, he has earned the right to be selective.
Shahid Afridi came with the Pakistan team and bowled along spell in the nets before having a short batting stint towards the end. He is more of a bowler these days and batting has largely been restricted to cameos at No. 6. Afridi is three days short of his 36th birthday and seven months short of completing two decades in international cricket. Like his Indian limited-overs counterpart, the Pakistan T20 captain, too, remains a hugely influential figure in the team.
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The Asia Cup fixture between the arch-rivals would be a tale of two captains as well. Both are at the back end of their illustrious careers. Old guards yes, but they still retain a massive charm.
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In Dhaka, two years back, Afridi had single-handedly won the game for Pakistan – in the Asia Cup, clobbering two straight sixes off R Ashwin in the final over. His batting prowess has diminished since. Between March 2, 2014 and February 26, 2016, he has scored 269 runs at 15.82 in 20 T20 internationals. But he has taken 18 wickets at 29.55. Overall stats hardly matter in the shortest format though.
Current form counts and Afridi doesn’t fare well on that scale either. In three T20s in New Zealand last month, he could manage 38 runs. His strike-rate, however, was a staggering 200.00. Then, playing for Peshawar Zalmi in the inaugural Pakistan Super League, he scored 87 runs in 10 games; once again at a very impressive strike-rate of 158.18. Afridi still can go boom-boom with the bat, but does he remain a game-changer?
The Pakistani swashbuckler is pragmatic enough to accept a role reversal — from a marauding batsman to the leader of the spin-bowling pack.
“My main strength now is bowling. But where I bat I can also contribute to the team and that is important. Whether it is 20 or 30 runs but it is important,” he said. Pakistan’s T20 record against India is dismal; five defeats and only one win in six matches. This is largely down to India’s familiarity with the format, thanks to IPL. “I am not thinking what we have done against India in the past. For, I don’t live in the past. We want to play the game according to our team plan,” said Afridi. His team would like to see him leading from the front to defy history.As for Dhoni, he is short of batting time because the Indian top order has been in fabulous form. And on a couple of occasions, when Hardik Pandya was promoted to do pinch-hitting, the youngster lived up to the challenge.
In the team’s Asia Cup opener against Bangladesh, Dhoni got only two balls to flex his muscles and remained not out on eight. But Pakistan with their fast bowling trio of Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Irfan and Mohammad Amir, pose a bigger threat. Pitches in this tournament have been assisting the seamers and the slump against Sri Lanka in Pune and the early stutter in the last match attest India’s batting doubts in such conditions.
Tomorrow’s game has been billed as a contest between India’s batting and Pakistan’s fast bowling and there’s every chance that Dhoni might get a longish stint in the middle. With the World T20 approaching, he won’t mind having a decent stint with the bat.
Afridi and Dhoni are two completely different types of cricketers but the ability to hit the ball hard provides a common thread. Also, both have been immense for their respective teams – larger than life figures. Little wonder then that ahead of the match Rohit Sharma doffed his hat. “Both of them have been great for their respective countries, they have served their nation with distinction. They have done wonders for their countries. I wish them all the best.”
Former Pakistan captain and team manager Intikhab Alam concurred. “Shahid Afridi is a tremendous cricketer and over the years he has served Pakistan cricket tremendously. There’s still a lot of cricket left in him and we expect a great deal from him. Coming to Dhoni, the way he has performed for India says it all. You just have to stand and applaud. You don’t get such a cricketer every day.”
In all likelihood, both Afridi and Dhoni are playing their last Asia Cup but taking a cue from the India captain, Afridi, too, is choosing to be noncommittal. “I think for me the Asia Cup and the World Cup is more important than my retirement and I am focusing on that at the moment,” he said.
Not many moons ago, Dhoni had teased a reporter for asking him a retirement-related question. “The answer remains the same, it is like what is your name – ‘MS Dhoni’ and it will remain the same for a considerable period of time unless you give me a new thing.” It would be interesting to see what the future holds. For the moment, however, the two giants would be in pursuit to cancel each other.
Meanwhile, Afridi batted for the resumption of bilateral cricket ties between the two neighbours. “Sports can always develop good relationship between countries. It not a time for people to fight and run rather they want entertainment now. I think the Pakistani people want to see the Indians in Pakistan, while the Indians would also like to see the Pakistani players playing over there. We should not give sports a political colour. We should consider the public demands and always try to give this message. Our government always took the first step in this regard.”