Match Preview – Afghanistan vs Sri Lanka, Asia Cup 2022, Group B

'Plan was to hit three boundaries an over in the last three overs'

Big picture

It’s a very 2022 thing to say, but it’s possible that Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are pretty evenly matched sides.

Hear me out.

Of the two sides, Afghanistan tend to play weaker teams, of course, but since 2020, they have won a T20I series against Ireland, won two against Zimbabwe, and drawn one against Bangladesh.

By comparison, Sri Lanka have won just one T20I series since 2020. This was against India. That sounds impressive. Until you remember this was the series in which an already depleted India team (their Test side was on tour on some other continent, playing England) trounced Sri Lanka in the first match, before no fewer than seven of their players contracted Covid-19, and they barely managed to put an XI on the field, packing the side out with bowlers, including net bowlers.

Sri Lanka may be a resurgent team on the whole. They have got something cooking on the Test front. Their ODI form hasn’t been terrible lately. But in T20Is? There are some stars in the team now, but certainly no consistent results. They have won just two of the last 11 T20Is they have played.

The batting is where Sri Lanka will feel they have more quality than the opposition. Kusal Mendis is in excellent form, across formats. Charith Asalanka was terrific in the UAE during last year’s World Cup. Najibullah Zadran and Hazratullah Zazai have been good for Afghanistan this year, but can they do it against high-quality spin?

This is another opportunity for Afghanistan to show they deserve to play tougher opposition more often. And Sri Lanka to show that while they struggle against the top teams, they can still beat the sides they have historically dominated.

Form guide

Sri Lanka WLLLL (last five completed T20Is, most recent first)
Afghanistan LWWLL

In the spotlight

Dasun Shanaka‘s last T20I innings was essentially a miracle. At one stage in the third T20I against Australia in Pallekele, Sri Lanka needed 59 runs from 18 balls, with only four wickets in hand. Shanaka took the side home in a hail of sixes, making 54 not out off 25 balls. Although his ODI form has been modest, Shanaka’s T20I form has been excellent this year – he’s hit 302 runs at a strike rate of 145, across 11 innings. Sri Lanka have been found wanting for death-overs fireworks for years now. They need Shanaka to carry his 2022 form through.

Afghanistan’s captain, Mohammad Nabi, has not had so much T20I fun with the bat recently. In the recent series against Ireland, he was out five times and made a top score of 9. But then that’s just one series (he’d had good batting outings against Zimbabwe earlier in the year). And his bowling continues to be effective, particularly on the kinds of pitches the UAE is likely to throw up, and with which he is familiar.

Pitch and conditions

Conditions have been hot and dry in Dubai, with the playing surface covered for large parts of the day. With training entirely held at the ICC Academy nearby, curators have had enough time to water the surface and ensure moisture content is maintained. On each of the last four evenings, there hasn’t been much dew at night. This is something teams will gladly welcome because it will minimise the toss advantage. It will also make for an even contest between bat and ball.

Team news

Shanaka was guarded about the make-up of his XI ahead of the match, but suggested there would be a left-arm seamer in operation, which means Dilshan Madushanka may be in line for a debut. He’s likely to have sling-arm seamer Matheesha Pathirana for company. Sri Lanka have decisions to make on the batting front, though. Ashen Bandara has been in good domestic form. But Dhananjaya de Silva has more all-round appeal. And then there’s Pathum Nissanka. If they are to accommodate Nissanka in the XI, Mendis may move down the order.

Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Kusal Mendis (wk), 2 Danushka Gunathilaka, 3 Charith Asalanka, 4 Bhanuka Rajapaksa, 5 Dhananjaya de Silva/Ashen Bandara, 6 Dasun Shanaka (capt), 7 Wanindu Hasaranga, 8 Chamika Karunaratne, 9 Maheesh Theekshana, 10 Matheesha Pathirana, 11 Dilshan Madushanka

If the pitch is turning, Afghanistan may stack their side with spinners. Between Rashid, Mujeeb, left-arm wristspinner Noor Ahmad, and Nabi’s darts, they could have a lot of slow-bowling options.

Afghanistan (possible): 1 Hazratullah Zazai, 2 Rahmanullah Gurbaz (wk), 3 Ibrahim Zadran, 4 Najibullah Zadran, 5 Mohammad Nabi (capt), 6 Samiullah Shinwari, 7 Rashid Khan, 8 Karim Janat, 9 Naveen-ul-Haq, 10 Mujeeb Ur Rahman, 11 Noor Ahmad

Stats and trivia

  • Incredibly, these teams have only played one T20I against each other, in the 2016 World Cup. Sri Lanka won that match with seven balls to spare.
  • Nabi has played more T20Is in the UAE than anywhere else, with 35 appearances. His stats on both fronts are impressive. He’s made 593 runs here, striking at 138. And he’s taken 31 wickets, with an economy rate of 7.09.
  • Shanaka’s 2022 form is a huge improvement on previous years. He’s not only never hit more than 224 runs in other years (he has 308 so far this year), he’d also not struck at more than 135 in any year in which he’d hit more than ten runs.

Quotes

“We’re hoping to use a familiar combination. We’ll have two main fast bowlers, and an allrounder in Chamika Karunaratne. And we might have a left-armer too.”
Sri Lanka captain Shanaka on the seam attack’s likely make-up.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf

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