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DHAKA, Feb 23, (AFP): India and Pakistan will renew cricket’s most bitter rivalry this week after a one-year gap when they face off in the Asia Cup, a contest for regional supremacy which is also a final rehearsal for the World T20.
The biennial 12-day tournament, which is being held in Bangladesh for the second time in a row, begins on Wednesday night when the hosts take on India at Dhaka’s Sher-e-Bangla stadium — the venue for all the matches.
Local supporters will be looking to see if Bangladesh’s sharp improvement in 50-over cricket will translate into an upturn in their performances in the shortest form of the game, with the World T20 in India only weeks away.
But most eyes will be on Saturday’s glamour tie when India and Pakistan take to the field together for the first time since last year’s World Cup match in Australia.
India-Pakistan showdowns usually draw hundreds of millions of television viewers, making it the biggest box office attraction in the sport.
But diplomatic tensions have meant that the two teams have not played any bilateral series for more than three years and their rivalry is therefore restricted to multi-national tournaments.
Pakistan, furious that India has rebuffed repeated pleas to play a bilateral series at a neutral venue, will be desperate to cause an upset against their giant neighbour.
With the reigning champions Sri Lanka going through a rebuilding phase, most pundits expect India to cement their position at the top of the T20 world rankings ahead of their staging of the format’s premier tournament.
Confidence is high among Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men after recent convincing T20 series victories over Australia and Sri Lanka.
Although India are likely to give most of their players a work-out in the build-up to the World T20, team director Ravi Shastri made clear they would not be taking their foot off the gas.
India’s star batsman Virat Kohli also quashed any suggestion that the team would be holding back with only weeks to go before the World T20 begins.
“When I go into field I go to play cricket with bat and ball, playing with Pakistan is not different. It’s competitive and Pakistan is a strong team,” Kohli said on Tuesday.
India are set to be without Dhoni for the Bangladesh opener after the skipper suffered a back spasm during a practice session on Monday.
But former Bangladesh captain Habibul Bashar acknowledged India would nevertheless start as tournament favourites after their recent successes.
Two crushing Indian victories over Sri Lanka in their recent three-match series underlined how much the islanders are missing batting greats Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, who have both retired since the 2014 triumph.
Pakistan, who will become the first side to play 100 Twenty20 internationals during the tournament on Feb 29, will arrive late in Dhaka after the finale of the inaugural edition of the Pakistan Super League.
Bangladesh will hope home advantage will help them build confidence before heading to India for the World T20 qualifying round from March 8-13.
The Tigers had a dream run in 2015 in one-day internationals, but when it comes to 20-over cricket they are still ranked among the minnows.
Meanwhile, India’s star batsman Virat Kohli welcomed the return of tainted Pakistani player Mohammad Amir to international cricket on Tuesday, heaping praise on his bowling and wishing him all the best ahead of their Asia Cup contest in Dhaka.
Pakistan’s chances in the tournament will partly depend on the 23-year-old left-armer, who served three months in jail for spot-fixing in a Test match against England at Lord’s in 2010.
“He is a very skillful bowler and I wish him all the best. He worked hard to come this far and it takes a lot of courage,” Kohli said in Dhaka Tuesday.
In related news, Pakistan included opening batsman Sharjeel Khan and fast bowler Mohammad Sami in its Asia Cup and World Twenty20 squads on Monday after injuries to Babar Azam and Ruman Raees.
Khan, who played the last of his three T20s in 2013, guided Islamabad United to the Pakistan Super League final with a century in the playoff win against Shahid Afridi-led Peshawar Zalmi at Dubai on Sunday.
Khan replaced Azam, who broke his left forearm during practice in the PSL, and was out for three to four weeks, the Pakistan Cricket Board said in a statement.
Khan hammered 117 off 62 balls to score the first century in the PSL against the likes of Wahab Riaz and Shaun Tait. The left-handed Khan has 287 runs in 10 PSL matches at a healthy strike rate of 151.05.
Raees, a left-arm fast bowler, has a grade one hamstring strain, and was replaced by fast bowler Sami, who has taken 11 wickets in the PSL.
Islamabad United batsman Kalid Latif, who scored 190 runs in the PSL, has been included in the World T20 squad in place of Iftikhar Ahmed.
Chief selector Haroon Rasheed said Pakistan had an option to make changes in its World T20 squad before March 8, and after watching Latif’s performance in the PSL it was decided to leave out Ahmed.
“Khalid Latif could not be made part of the Asia Cup squad due to some technical reasons, but would join the squad for the World Twenty20,” Rasheed said.
The Asia Cup starts in Bangladesh this week, and the World T20 in India next month.
Asia Cup schedule
Feb 24: Bangladesh vs India
Feb 25: Sri Lanka vs UAE
Feb 26: Bangladesh vs UAE
Feb 27: India vs Pakistan
Feb 28: Bangladesh vs Sri Lanka
Feb 29: Pakistan vs UAE
Mar 1: India vs Sri Lanka
Mar 2: Bangladesh v Pakistan
Mar 3: India vs UAE
Mar 4: Pakistan vs Sri Lanka
Mar 6: Final