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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Virat Kohli's UAE absence maybe good, maybe bad: India's Asia Cup talking points

Rohit Sharma leads men in blue in continental tournament, with title defence getting under way against Hong Kong in Dubai

Rohit Sharma, centre, will be India captain and their No 1 batsman at the Asia Cup. AFP
Rohit Sharma, centre, will be India captain and their No 1 batsman at the Asia Cup. AFP

When India begin their Asia Cup title defence on Tuesday with their first Group A fixture against Hong Kong in Dubai, they will be desperate to put a run of poor results in recent times behind them.

The team will be led by Rohit Sharma, in the absence of the rested Virat Kohli, as the men in blue seek the perfect start to the competition by beating Hong Kong, before they turn their focus to the third team in the group – arch-rivals Pakistan – whom they face on Wednesday.

India will also do well not to lose sight of the fact the 2019 World Cup is less than a year away, with some niggling issues left to iron out.

Virat Kohli's Asia Cup absence could benefit the Indian team. AP Photo
Virat Kohli's Asia Cup absence could benefit the Indian team. AP Photo

India seeking redemption

India began their 2018/19 season well with a crushing win over Afghanistan in a one-off Test, before collecting wins in back-to-back Twenty20 series in Ireland and England.

But after they beat the home team in the first of three one-day internationals, the wheels started to come off. India lost the next two ODIs before being handed a 4-1 thrashing in the five-match Test series against the same team.

Hence, the team – battle-hardened from their experience in England – will look to hit the reset button in the UAE. It will be a concern if they do not.

Kohli absence double-edged sword

A team short on confidence will ideally want all their best players available for a tournament as big as the Asia Cup. So in that sense, Kohli’s absence is bad news for the men in blue.

But in a recent interview to The National, former India captain Kapil Dev pointed out that it could actually be a good thing, for it gives the rest of the players a chance to raise their game and win some matches for their country.

There is a sense that the team are overly reliant on Kohli, partly due to the fact he has dominated world cricket for the past two or three years, but also because there may be complacency on the part of his fellow batsmen – aside from, perhaps, Rohit himself and opening partner Shikhar Dhawan.

Therefore, Indian fans will hope Kapil proves prescient and some of the other batsmen take ownership – particularly Lokesh Rahul and Ambati Rayudu.

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India will expect much from Lokesh Rahul, especially in the absence of Virat Kohli. Reuters
India will expect much from Lokesh Rahul, especially in the absence of Virat Kohli. Reuters

One half overcooked, other half undercooked

Rohit landed in the UAE earlier in the week with only a part of the squad, given that at least seven of the 16 players were still in England at the time. One wonders then how prepared the team will be for the tournament.

There is a real possibility that the players arriving from England will be tired, perhaps even overcooked, after a long tour of England. Consider someone like Rahul, who played in all three formats while there.

On the other hand, those who arrived with Rohit, including the captain himself, will find themselves swinging into international action after a month of relative inaction.

UAE spinner Ahmed Raza told The National last week that modern-day cricketers were increasingly able to adjust to the change of pace – even formats in India’s case – considering there was so much cricket being played these days.

He may well be right, but it is something the management will be thinking about while picking Tuesday’s XI.

Weathering conditions in Dubai

Another factor the Indians, especially those flying in from England, will need to consider is the weather.

While England experienced warmer than usual temperatures this summer, there is little that can prepare anybody – however fit they may be – for the UAE weather. The heat and humidity, the latter in particular, are certain to test even the best of India’s players.

It is useful that some of them have played in the Emirates before – when a significant part of the 2014 Indian Premier League season was hosted here – but that does not guarantee success.

This is where Pakistan, who for the past decade have played all their ‘home’ games in the country, will have a decisive edge over India.

India's middle-order will be stronger if MS Dhoni is promoted to No 4, at least for the Asia Cup. Reuters
India's middle-order will be stronger if MS Dhoni is promoted to No 4, at least for the Asia Cup. Reuters

Dhoni must shore up middle order

India’s success in ODI cricket for the past five years has been underpinned by consistent contributions from the top order and the bowling attack.

However, their biggest problem continues to be the absence of a strong middle order, and Kohli’s absence at No 3 will only compound it.

It is likely Rahul, the most recent player to be tried at No 4, will be promoted to one-down. This once again leaves a gaping hole at No 4, with the only solution being to have wicketkeeper MS Dhoni in this position.

Gone are the days when Dhoni could score quick runs. At 37, he is past his best as a finisher. But he has enough experience to anchor the innings, guide the younger batsmen at the other end, and keep the scoreboard ticking.

Rayudu could bat at No 5 and the hard-hitting Kedar Jadhav at No 6, but neither can yet be expected to do the all-important job at No 4. So leave that to Dhoni.

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More on Asia Cup:

Explainer: India v Pakistan – all you need to know about the biggest Asia Cup tournament clash in Dubai

India report card: How they rated in England, and who should be picked for their next tour of Australia

Paul Radley: Dubai transformed into Dhaka Sports City as Bangladesh fans light up the Asia Cup opener

Amith Passela's interview with Charith Senanayake: Sri Lanka 'certain' Lasith Malinga will come good

Lowdown: Everything you need to know about the tournament to be held in the United Arab Emirates