If an Associate side wants to celebrate a landmark day, who better than Pakistan to share their (non-alcoholic) champagne with. They have championed the Associates’ cause more regularly and sincerely than any other Full Member, who have never quite exuded the superiority complex that, with the reduction of the World Cup to ten teams, has effectively become the ICC’s official policy now. The conviviality of this fixture is even more intimate now as the Associate who has entered through the qualifiers is Hong Kong. More than half of their squad has Pakistani heritage, and a number of them learned their craft in the country that they will be trying to upset.
Pakistan will look to put pragmatism first, though. This is serious business; the Asia Cup is the third-biggest ODI tournament in the world, given the number of viewers in the continent and the passion of the followers far outstrips any other regional fan base. And there’s also the small matter of hitting top gear as the World Cup approaches. Pakistan will be eager to show their Champions Trophy success last year wasn’t a one-off, but a harbinger of a golden age that this young team is keen to spearhead. There is a quiet confidence inside the camp that their line-up, at its best, is better than any other in the competition, and they will view the match against Hong Kong as an opportunity to make an emphatic statement.
But Hong Kong, who will play their first Asia Cup match since 2008, are no pushovers. They have had a consistent dose of cricket since 2014, playing against the likes of Afghanistan and Ireland. Their most impressive win to date came against Afghanistan earlier this year in the World Cup qualifiers. While that wasn’t enough to see them through to England in 2019, they did manage to peak at the right time at the Asia Cup qualifiers in Malaysia, and edged out UAE in a thrilling final to make it to the UAE.
These will be suitable conditions for Hong Kong to perform to the best of their abilities. Spin bowling is their strength, and if used well, could cause Pakistan problems on the dry surfaces they’re likely to get in Dubai.
Nadeem Ahmed is the leader of the attack and was, astonishingly, a part of both teams that played the Asia Cup in 2002 and 2008. But while his experienced left-arm spin does come in handy, Hong Kong, as ever, have a strikingly young team to represent them. Twenty-year-old wicketkeeper Anshy Rath is captain, while no fewer than ten of the 17 players in the squad are yet to celebrate their 24th birthday.
Hong Kong: LLWLW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Babar Azam is feted as Pakistan’s best batting prospect for ages, and his statistics, especially in ODI cricket, back up the hype. An average of close to 55 with eight hundreds in 44 innings suggests a fairytale start to his international career, and he will be feeling confident of shining at a multi-nation tournament. Fresh on the back of a Zimbabwe tour where he wasn’t really challenged – he scored 184 runs in four innings while being dismissed only once – he will view the Hong Kong game as an ideal opportunity to get his eye in before the match against India on Wednesday.
If Pakistan bat first, expect them to score big, and when that happens these days, Babar tends to end up among big runs. With Virat Kohli not playing the tournament, it’s even arguable that he is the best player in the competition, but it will be much sweeter to have that said about him at the end of the tournament rather than the beginning.
Hong Kong is the only side in the tournament with a captain under the age of 30. And that’s by some distance; Anshy Rath is barely 20 years old. A classic case of Hong Kong pushing their youth policy to the limit, Rath was appointed after star batsman Babar Hayat abruptly stepped down on the eve of the first qualifying game last month. It didn’t seem to overly burden him as he went on to score a century in his third match as skipper, following it with a crucial half-century against Nepal, to end up their leading run-scorer in the competition. He might not have dreamed of taking on Pakistan and India before his 21st birthday, never mind leading his side out for those games. It will be an emotional moment for Rath, but for a cricketer to whom stardom comes so easily, who is to say he won’t burst to global fame with a noteworthy performance in the next few days.
The Pakistan middle-order batsman missed the 2016 Asia Cup because of injury but since then he has been a consistent performer for his side
Hong Kong’s batting depth has been a concern, particularly since Mark Chapman left to ply his trade in New Zealand. The top order will be crucial, but they’re unlikely to make any changes to the side that eked out a nervy win against the UAE in the qualifying final.
Hong Kong (probable): 1 Nizakat Khan, 2 Anshy Rath (capt & wk), 3 Babar Hayat, 4 KD Shah, 5 Christopher Carter, 6 Ehsan Khan, 7 Aizaz Khan, 8 Scott McKechnie, 9 Tanwir Afzal, 10 Ehsan Nawaz, 11 Nadeem Ahmed
Pakistan, too, are likely to take this game as seriously as any other, if only because they will want their strongest XI firing on all cylinders ahead of their meeting with India. The biggest question still remains whether Pakistan know what their best bowling combination is, and which of the six fast bowlers they have brought to the UAE deserve the nod in the final XI.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Fakhar Zaman, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Shoaib Malik, 5 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 6 Asif Ali 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Faheem Ashraf, 9 Mohammad Amir, 10 Hasan Ali, 11 Usman Khan
Pitch and conditions
The Dubai surface is usually extremely dry, even by the UAE standards, but it does tend to take turn later on in the match, particularly under lights. The weather will be extremely hot and sunny – the forecast for the highest tomorrow is 41 C – which may test the fitness of the quick bowlers.
Stats and trivia
From the 22 players who lined up against each other when these two teams met for the first time, in 2004, one player from each side is still standing. Shoaib Malik and Nadeem are likely to battle again, just as they did in Colombo 14 years ago.
It is nearly three years since Pakistan lost an ODI in the UAE. That came against England in November 2015, and since then, Pakistan have won all eight matches they’ve played there.