Dieticians around the world like to engage their clients by rewarding cheat meals every now and then for achieving certain targets. Similarly, India can think of the Afghanistan clash as a 'cheat meal' and try out options ahead of the England clash on June 30, which in a sense will define their group-stage play.
Call it the luck of the draw or whatever, this clash comes bang in the middle of their campaign. Being one of only two unbeaten sides yet, there couldn't be a better opportunity to test their reserves. Rishabh Pant has finally realised his World Cup dream, even as Shikhar Dhawan's has come crashing down, but can Pant break into the XI?
Should Vijay Shankar, who was hit on the toe by a Jasprit Bumrah yorker, not recover, it becomes a no-brainer. However, if Vijay is fit, leaving him out after a creditable outing against Pakistan could play on his confidence. Nevertheless, it's a healthy debate for the team management to have. For all you know, Virat Kohli could just field an unchanged side, make a mockery of all the pre-match talk and stick to his tried-and-tested formula.
India's bowling looks strong whenever the wristspinners fire, so much so that even the absence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar doesn't seem such a big deal currently. With Hardik Pandya, Kedar Jadhav and Vijay capable of bowling, suddenly a batting line-up that couldn't bowl now is bursting at its seam with bowling potential. Throw in Mohammed Shami into the mix along with Bumrah and it's as formidable a bowling force as you could get.
Afghanistan's World Cup campaign is in a mess. The world has moved on from the refugee-camp narrative and what they did at the World Cricket League Division Five a decade ago has no bearing now. They are a Full Member, who brought with them the promise of a few upsets in the World Cup, especially after competing tooth and nail at the Asia Cup last year.
But an untimely captaincy switch, the rift between a former selector and head coach, inconsistency in selection and allegations of nepotism have derailed their campaign, and have forced them to feed on crumbs of comfort. Like Hashmatullah Shahidi's fighting half-century against England or just the fact that they lasted the entire 50 overs against the tournament favourites.
The road is only going to get tougher and it's for Afghanistan to now prove that they aren't simply waiting to get on the flight home.
India WWWLL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Mohammed Shami wasn't in the frame for an ODI recall until nine months ago. A home series against West Indies in October proved to be the springboard. Compelling performances in Australia and New Zealand meant he couldn't have possibly been overlooked. Yet, when it came to the World Cup, India went in with Bhuvneshwar Kumar. With the latter now injured, Shami has not just two potential opportunities but can also make a case to be a definite starter even if Bhuvneshwar recovers completely from his hamstring niggle.
Rashid Khan is a fierce competitor. Off days don't affect him. In IPL 2018, he was carted in back-to-back games by left-handers - Chris Gayle and Suresh Raina - against whom he doesn't have the best of records. He returned from the shellacking to finish with a match haul of 2 for 11 in a winning spell. Three days ago, in a completely different format, it was another left-hander - Eoin Morgan - who smacked him for seven sixes to leave him an over away from the most expensive figures in ODI history. India's top order is unlikely to have a single left-hander come Saturday - unless of course they play Pant. The fact that India are yet to lose a wicket to spin in this World Cup will add to Rashid's challenge.
India will make one forced change, with Shami set to replace the injured Bhuvneshwar.
India (probable) 1 KL Rahul, 2 Rohit Sharma, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 Vijay Shankar, 5 MS Dhoni (wk), 6 Kedar Jadhav, 7 Hardik Pandya, 8 Kuldeep Yadav, 9 Yuzvendra Chahal, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Jasprit Bumrah
There's a lot of flux around the Afghanistan camp. Who is the boss? A captain with little confidence or the outgoing coach? Generally, a situation like this means a slew of changes. Your guess is as good as ours.
Afghanistan (probable) 1 Noor Ali Zadran, 2 Gulbadin Naib (capt), 3 Rahmat Shah, 4 Hashmatullah Shahidi, 5 Asghar Afghan, 6 Mohammad Nabi, 7 Rashid Khan, 8 Ikram Ali Khil, 9 Aftab Alam 10, Dawlat Zadran, 11 Mujeeb Ur Rahman
Pitch and conditions
It's expected to be a belter. The average first innings score in the last five completed ODIs here is 286. England and Pakistan aggregated 734 runs during a bilateral series match in May. England walloped their 213 target against West Indies in just 33.1 overs. By dimensions, the ground isn't the biggest. The fact that South Africa and India scrapped 457 runs early two weeks ago was down to simply the quality of Kagiso Rabada and India's pace battery.
KL Rahul has been out three times to offspin in the eight times he's faced this variety. All of them came on that wretched 2017 tour to Sri Lanka, where he was a walking wicket to Akila Dananjaya. Can Afghanistan exploit this weakness early by bringing him up against Mohammad Nabi with the new ball? Nabi isn't averse to bowling with the new ball, having done a similar job for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL.
Afghanistan bowlers have so far picked up just three wickets in the first 10 overs this World Cup. By the time they've introduced Rashid, opposition batsmen have been well-set. Barring the game against South Africa where he was introduced in the tenth over while defending 127, he's been brought in the earliest in the 14th over against Australia. He's yet to take a wicket in his first spell so far this tournament. Can Afghanistan look to bring him in early, and have the batsmen try and attack him in the Powerplay, which could in turn increase his chance of striking early?
Should India play Pant, they may want to resist temptation of batting him at No. 4. Although the sample size is still small, Pant's record at No. 5 - 497 runs in 15 innings at a strike rate of 111.40 - is significantly better than 280 runs in 13 innings at No. 4. Also holding him back could mean Nabi may have bowled a bulk of his overs by the time he arrives - he's been out three times in four innings to offspinners. It's only against offspin bowling that he strikes at under 100.
Stats and trivia
Aftab Alam, who was dropped for the previous game, averages of 21.3, the best for an Afghanistan pacer in ODIs since 2018.
Najibullah is the only Afghanistan player to average above 50 and strike at above 100 in ODIs this year.
Gulbadin Naib has taken 18 wickets in ODIs this year, the most for an Afghanistan bowler beating Rashid, Nabi and Mujeeb ur Rahman
Shami's average of 17.3 in World Cup is the best among Indian bowlers to have picked up at least 10 wickets in the competition.
India are currently sitting on 49 World Cup wins
"I don't think we prepared that well for a tournament like this. It is a big stage, there will be ups and downs, but we have learnt a lot so far. We should have won at least one or two games; we had the opportunity to do so, but we lacked experience."
Rashid Khan in an interview to Mid-day newspaper