Deep in the heart of Delhi with its symbols of power, tree-lined roads, dry heat and dodgy air, the Arun Jaitley Stadium, Kotla for the old fans, geared up for Wednesday’s World Cup clash between India and Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, the sun beat down on the turf, painters got busy dabbing sponsor logos on the outfield and the public address system cleared its throat with English songs and there was even an impromptu interlude with shades of Arabic music.
The venue, a witness to many a stellar deed with the prime one being Anil Kumble’s ‘Perfect 10’, should help the Indian caravan roll smooth.
Having got past Australia in Chennai, Rohit Sharma’s men start as the obvious favourite but a little statistical detail remains: India and Afghanistan were once locked in a tie in an Asia Cup match at Dubai in 2018.
The Men in Blue will be without the dengue-affected Shubman Gill, who is recuperating in Chennai. Having fatally dallied outside the off-stump against the Aussies, Ishan Kishan could get another shot at redemption atop the batting tree.
Rohit and Shreyas Iyer too need to move on from their ducks in the previous outing.
Packing a punch
Still, India’s batting packs a punch, especially with Virat Kohli and K.L. Rahul offering solidity and runs.
India aims at incremental progress with the immediate focus being on the latest contest, a philosophy that Rohit has often reiterated in press conferences.
It remains to be seen whether the management would rest the odd bowler, just as a breather before Saturday’s high-voltage tussle against Pakistan at Ahmedabad.
In a long championship involving constant travel, fitness-management, specific to bowlers, remains a critical feature.
Meanwhile, Hardik Pandya, the all-rounder offering balance, can warm up more against a less-fancied rival. The backyard-vibe that India feels, will also be felt by the visitors as Delhi has been used as a home base by Afghanistan.
Many Indians would link their first association with Afghanistan through Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala, which isoften apart of school textbooks.
That pastoral Afghanistan of the past is now grappling with a loss of individual liberties.
In this grim context laced with melancholy, Hashmatullah Shahidi’s men step in, offering hope that goes beyond the cover-drives and googlies.
Rashid Khan, the spinning all-rounder, as always, remains the key. But as Shahidi mentioned, just spin can’t be the only weapon as the batters, including himself, need to score.
The middle-order has to back openers Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran.
With former India cricketer Ajay Jadeja as its mentor, Afghanistan has another good resource to bank upon while India is keen to pen its winning signature on a surface that had a mild green tinge on match-eve.
The teams (from):
India: Rohit Sharma (Capt.), K.L. Rahul, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, Hardik Pandya, Ishan Kishan, Ravindra Jadeja, R. Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur and Kuldeep Yadav.
Afghanistan: Hashmatullah Shahidi (Capt.), Ibrahim Zadran, Riaz Hassan, Rahmat Shah, Najibullah Zadran, Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Azmatullah Omarzai, Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Ikram Alikhil, Abdul Rahman, Noor Ahmed, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Fazalhaq Farooqi and Naveen-ul-Haq.
Umpires: Michael Gough and Paul Reiffel; Third umpire: Marais Erasmus; Match referee: Jeff Crowe.
Match starts at 2 p.m.