Fatullah: Humiliated and winless for quite a while, a bruised Indian cricket team would seek to rediscover the lost touch in a five-way battle for regional supremacy when the 12th Asia Cup one-day cricket tournament starts from Tuesday.
India were thoroughly embarrassed in their recent trips to South Africa and New Zealand, failing to win a single match in any format. And now, India are up for another tough challenge when they square off against arch-rivals Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and debutantes Afghanistan in the sub-continent`s premier ODI event.
Captained by Virat Kohli in the absence of an injured Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India have been a record five-time Asia Cup champions but can hardly be considered favourites this time around given the way they have faltered in recent months.
The struggles in South Africa and New Zealand have laid bare the team`s bowling frailties and the over-reliance on Kohli in the batting department. The Indians will kick off their campaign on Wednesday with a relatively easy match against hosts Bangladesh here.
But once again, the bestseller of the biennial tournament will be the India-Pakistan marquee match in Mirpur on March 2 when the two traditional foes renew their intense cricketing rivalry.
Pakistan will face Sri Lanka in the tournament-opener here tomorrow. Without the finishing ability of Dhoni, it will be interesting to see how the new-look middle-order -- comprising Ajinkya Rahane, wicketkeeper-batsman Dinesh Karthik and the classical-mould Cheteshwar Pujara -- performs in the slog overs.
After being made the captain as Dhoni`s replacement in a tri-series in the West Indies, Kohli had begun with a loss but since then he has been on a roll with seven straight wins. That five of the seven wins came against minnows Zimbabwe tells a different story as Kohli will have a completely different challenge this time.
"I've only been captain for about eight games till now? It went pretty good but this is a big tournament, a challenge I'm looking forward to," Kohli, who had led India U-19 team to World Cup triumph in 2008, said after arrival in Dhaka yesterday. Kohli had a dream run in the last Asia Cup, scoring the tournament's highest (185) against Pakistan and was the leading run-getter but India missed the final berth by virtue of their loss to Bangladesh. It was in the same match, the now-retired Indian cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar had notched the feat of notching up his 100th international century, incidentally his last.
Having arrived in Bangladesh in late January for a full series which they won comfortably (1-0 in Tests, 2-0 in T20s and 3-0 in ODIs), four time champions Sri Lanka will start favourites in the 50-over tournament that will lead up to the warm-up matches of the World Twenty20 here. Senior Lankan batsman Kumar Sangakkara would be the one to watch out for in the event given the fine form he has displayed in recent times. With his first triple century followed by a second innings ton in the Test series, the 36-year-old has been in sublime touch.
In one-dayers too, Sangakkara has been in blistering form as his century had helped Sri Lanka clinch the series. He would look to ensure that his team makes amends for failing to win a single match in the previous edition of the tournament, which was also held here. Unlike India, Sri Lanka will not be short on experience in batting with senior players like Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene and batting all-rounder Angelo Matthews leading the side.
However, the Lankans will miss veteran Tillakartne Dilshan who was ruled out after picking a finger injury. Lahiru Thirimanne has been included as his replacement. Fourth-ranked Sri Lanka have a chance to displace India from the second spot by winning all their matches, including the final, in the Asia Cup but if India win even one of their matches, they will hold on to their ranking ahead of the April 1 cut-off date. As for Pakistan, the defending champions, the most sought after match will be the one against India when the two arch-rivals meet for the first time after the ICC Champions Trophy, which Dhoni's men had won in a rain-affected match.
"It's always a big challenge to playing against India because there is so much interest in the game. India are a formidable side and we have to be at our best to win," Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq said ahead of their tournament-opener against Sri Lanka. Fatullah in Narayangonj, a suburban town in south of Dhaka, will host first five league matches before the tournament shifts to Mirpur in Dhaka. Pakistan, who beat Bangladesh in last year's final, come to the tournament on the back of series wins over Sri Lanka and South Africa and Misbah and Mohammad Hafeez along with Ahmed Shehzad will be the batting backbone.
The bowling department will sorely miss tall left-arm pacer Mohammed Irfan, who has been ousted after injuring his hip. Umar Gul will spearhead the attack while uncapped Mohammad Talha, who has been included after his six wickets against Sri Lanka in Sharjah Test, will look to make a mark.
Meanwhile, there is trouble brewing for the hosts after captain Mushfiqur Rahim claimed that he was not consulted for the Asia Cup squad. This year may prove to be drastically different from 2012 for Bangladesh, who finished runners-up in the previous edition. Bangladesh will miss their key left-handed batsman Tamim Iqbal (neck strain) while former skipper and all-rounder Shakib-al-Hasan will miss their first two matches -- vs India and Afghanistan.
The focus will also be on the improving Afghans who were added as the fifth team by the Asian Cricket Council after they qualified for their maiden World Cup to be held next year. Afghanistan have played just two one-dayers against Test nations, losing both matches to Pakistan and Australia.