Afghanistan will try to exploit the disarray in the ranks of holders Sri Lanka in the World Twenty20 in Kolkata Thursday, with their destructive opener Mohammad Shahzad looking to extend his trail of carnage.
A victory for the defending champions in their World T20 opener against the tournament’s rank outsiders would normally be a no-brainer.
But the mood in the camps could not be more contrasting, with Sri Lanka in turmoil after changing their captain and coach in recent weeks and Afghanistan on a high after cruising through the preliminary round.
Afghanistan pulled off a comprehensive 59-run win against Zimbabwe in the qualifiers last week to storm into the Super 10s, a remarkable feat for the only non-Test team left in the tournament and who have to play all their matches away from their war-torn home.
Since overcoming the odds to compete in the 2010 World T20 in England, the Afghan team has managed to qualify for all the major international tournaments, including last year’s 50-over World Cup.
They have also won 16 out of 19 T20 matches, thanks to some inspiring performances by Shahzad, their in-form opener and wicketkeeper.
Shahzad has rattled off 624 runs at an average of 34.66 in the past year, including an unbeaten 118 off 67 balls against Zimbabwe in January.
Apart from his colourful array of shots, the 31-year-old is regarded as the team’s chief motivator thanks to his chirpy presence behind the stumps.
“The troubles back home are not really on our minds when we take the field,” Shahzad told AFP recently in an interview.
“We are not here just to participate in the tournament, we have come here to do something,” he said, bubbling with confidence.
The Afghans could not have asked for a better first big opponent than Sri Lanka, who have been grappling with a slump in form, having won just four of their 14 fixtures since their 2014 World T20 victory.
The defending champions have slumped to eighth in the T20 rankings and come into the World T20 following a disastrous showing at the Asia Cup in Bangladesh.
The struggling islanders also have had to replace the injured Lasith Malinga as captain, just hours before they were due to leave for India.
“From the outside no one is really giving us a chance and that’s a good thing,” said the team’s new T20 skipper Angelo Mathews.
“We can play with a lot of freedom and that’s what I expect from the team. I’m sure if we do play with a lot of freedom then we’ll beat most teams.”
Afghanistan (from): Asghar Stanikzai (captain), Amir Hamza, Dawlat Zadran, Gulbadin Naib, Hamid Hassan, Karim Sadiq, Mohammad Nabi, Mohammad Shahzad, Najibullah Zadran, Noor Ali Zadran, Rashid Khan, Samiullah Shenwari, Shafiqullah Shafiq, Shapoor Zadran, Usman Ghani.
Sri Lanka (from): Angelo Mathews (captain), Lasith Malinga, Dushmantha Chameera, Dinesh Chandimal, Niroshan Dickwella, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Rangana Herath, Shehan Jayasuriya, Chamara Kapugedera, Nuwan Kulasekara, Thisara Perera, Sachithra Senanayake, Dasun Shanaka, Milinda Siriwardana, Jeffrey Vandersay.