While most teams aim for stability and unity before a major event like the World Cup, Afghanistan stunned one and all by changing the leadership structure, much to the chagrin of its supporters and even senior team members.
Just two months before the showpiece event, the Afghanistan Cricket Board removed Asghar Afghan as captain from all three formats and named Gulbadin Naib as the ODI leader.
Afghan stars Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan castigated the board for the untimely decision, terming it “biased and irresponsible”.
On the field, they showed great fight during the Asia Cup in the UAE late last year, thrashing Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and tying a game with India.
They had to qualify for the showpiece event alongside West Indies and are consistently seen as one of the more dangerous outfits in white-ball cricket because of the fearless brand of cricket they play.
If the pitches are even remotely flat or dry, the Afghans will be right in it. Defeating Pakistan in their opening World Cup warm-up match underlined the serious threat they pose in the tournament.
Record: 1 win out of 6 games at 2015 World Cup.
Squad: Gulbadin Naib (c), Mohammad Shahzad, Noor Ali Zadran, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Rahmat Shah, Asghar Afghan, Hazratullah Zazai, Mohammad Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Najibullah Zadran, Samiullah Shinwari, Hamid Hassan, Rashid Khan, Aftab Alam, Dawlat Zadran
Strength: The core of the team – Shahzad, Nabi, Afghan, Zadrans – have been together through thick and thin and have personally taken the team from the depths of associate level cricket to Test level. It’s a team that is arguably the most well-knit outfit in the tournament, even with the forced leadership changes.
Weakness: The leadership bombshell might not affect the bonhomie in the side but can definitely affect the team plans as someone like Naib, who was not even in the picture, will be facing the heat in England. A self-inflicted wound which Afghanistan could have avoided by making any changes after the World Cup.
Player to watch: Rashid Khan is the player who can do it all – bowl tight overs, pick up wickets and hit some lusty blows in the death overs. if Rashid is on top of his game, Afghanistan will always be in the game as he can get a clutch of wickets on any surface.
Surprise package: Veteran fast bowler Hamid Hasan is back in the ODI side after a gap of three years. Once the leading pacer of the team, the 31-year-old had faded away but is now back in the scheme of things. With a decade of international experience under his belt, he brings a lot to the table.
Prediction: League phase
You never know which Pakistan turns up for any given match. One day they will play like a million dollars and the next look listless. And it is this very trait which makes Pakistan the perennial danger team in ICC events.
The men in green have a good record in ICC events in England, winning the 2017 Champions Trophy and 2009 World T20 title there as well as the 1999 World Cup final. Their most recent success in the 2017 Champions Trophy came after an incredible run to the final – when not many gave them much of a chance – and that too after just about qualifying for the tournament in the first place.
But since that epic win in the final over India – by 180 runs – Pakistan’s ODI record has plummeted. Since the beginning of 2018 and before the start of the England ODI series, they won 10 matches and lost 17 but five of those wins were against Zimbabwe while they lost 5-0 in the UAE to Australia earlier this year and were poor in the Asia Cup late last year.
Things seem to have reached rock bottom after their 4-0 ODI loss to England but that came after Pakistan became the first to post three successive 340-plus scores in one-dayers.
But as has been said numerous times and proven during the 2017 Champions Trophy, never take any Pakistan team lightly.
Record: Champions in 1992
Squad: Sarfraz Ahmed (c and wk), Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Asif Ali, Babar Azam, Haris Sohail, Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Wahab Riaz, Hasan Ali, Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Hasnain, Shaheen Afridi
Strength: The batting line-up right now is in as good form as it can possibly be, having regularly breached the 300-run mark during the ODI series against the Englishmen. Hard-hitter Asif Ali has added extra teeth to a very stable batting line-up that goes deep if Shadab Khan and Imad both feature in the XI.
Weakness: Star leg-spinner Shadab has just recovered from hepatitis and doesn’t have enough miles in his legs. Also, left-arm seamer Mohammad Amir has been selected despite not getting gametime against the Englishmen after contracting chicken pox. So unsure are Pakistan of their bowling, they have parachuted in veteran quick Wahab Riaz at the 11th hour.
Player to watch: Fakhar Zaman is a big match player and when he gets on a roll, scores big hundreds. Pakistan have placed a lot of faith in him and despite a poor Asia Cup, he has the quality to carry the team on his shoulders.
Surprise package: Selectors have taken a huge chance with Mohammad Hasnain as he just recently caught the eye during the PSL and has not been tested long enough in longer formats. But has serious pace and can knock teams over when on full tilt.
Prediction: League phase.
Eoin Morgan is hopeful of leading England in next week’s World Cup opener despite a finger injury that will keep him out of Saturday’s warm-up against Australia.
The captain suffered a scare when he hurt his left index finger during catching drills at the Ageas Bowl on Friday and was sent to hospital for X-rays which showed “a small flake fracture”.
That was enough to rule him out of the following day’s game but the prognosis was for a full and swift recovery that would see him fit for the tournament curtain-raiser against South Africa in five days.
Speaking on www.cricketworldcup.com, Morgan said: “The digit is the best I could have hoped for. I dropped a catch at training and dislocated it earlier and there’s a very small fracture in there but I’m good to go.
“I am going to miss the game tomorrow unfortunately but, as regards to the first game of the tournament, I should be fit to go. Very good news.”
Morgan was taking chances from the bowling machine on the outfield when he was struck, lingering on the pitch for a couple of minutes before the discomfort persuaded him to seek assistance.
The decision was taken to send him for what was described as a “precautionary X-ray” and shortly after 2pm he returned to the team hotel, which is part of the stadium complex, in good spirits.
Almost three hours passed before the ECB made the results public and, although it was immediately clear that he would not be taking the field against Australia, the news that it was neither a bad break nor one which would immediately rule him out of the first group match was positive.
Monday’s practice against Afghanistan, also at the Oval, was not mentioned but it seems likely that England will only allow their inspirational skipper to take part if he is fully fit.
Hampshire’s James Vince will take his place in the short term, slotting into the middle order on his home ground, but in terms of experience, form, international output and leadership he is not yet in Morgan’s class.
The question of batting replacements briefly rose up the agenda as Morgan awaited his diagnosis, a field thinned by Alex Hales’ removal from the squad for failed recreational drug tests and Sam Billings’ dislocated shoulder.
Joe Denly, culled from the preliminary 15-man squad in an all-round role, would be most likely to get the call should any of the top six succumb, with Ben Duckett also worthy of discussion.
Denly was leapfrogged by slow left-armer Liam Dawson on account of the latter’s stronger bowling and the Hampshire spinner will return against Australia as Adil Rashid rests a niggling shoulder problem. Joe Root was absent from training on personal business but will play on Saturday.
Dawson was batting at the Nursery Ground when Morgan was hurt but quickly became aware of the incident.
“I was batting on the other side, so I didn’t know what went on. When I came back to the dressing room a couple of the lads were talking,” he said.
“I just heard he got hit on the finger. I don’t think it’s too bad, but we’ll see what happens tomorrow.
Asked to explain Morgan’s importance as the figurehead of the squad, Dawson added: “He’s massive. The cricket that’s been played over the last four