It still feels like early days in the Asia Cup, but one of Hong Kong or Pakistan will see their tournament draw to a close on Friday. The format for the first round means one defeat can place any side under instant pressure. With India having pulled clear through wins over both opponents, there is clarity to the mission for both the Associate and the Full Member, the giants and the would-be giant killers.
There may be limited cricketing or historical evidence to suggest Hong Kong could mount a serious challenge to a side with Pakistan's firepower, but they will be well aware a knockout in the shortest format presents a golden opportunity to spring an upset. Against India
, it was the bowling that let them down, even if a spirited batting performance demonstrated the threat the side can pose. Babar Hayat
, Zeeshan Ali
and Scott McKechnie
provided the big hitting, while Ayush Shukla
, Ehsan Khan
and Yasim Murtaza
kept things tight, allowing just 82 runs in their 12 combined overs.
Pakistan, however, might feel this game plays into their hands to some extent. Babar Azam
and Mohammad Rizwan
do not come flying out of the blocks, but the template they follow was similar to one that India executed against Hong Kong on Wednesday. They opened their innings conservatively, before the middle order put the bowlers to the sword, smashing 98 in the final seven overs. And while India's approach may have been a game plan tailored to the opposition they were facing, scoring their big runs in the final overs is how Pakistan play anyway against nearly all opposition.
And so we have what we often cry out for, a T20I outside the World Cup with something on the line. It might, on paper, be a mismatch, but across the tableau of relatively context-free bilateral T20Is, it is rare to find a game with as much riding on it as Pakistan against Hong Kong on Friday. It's a game Hong Kong will savour, but they will tell themselves it might just be one they could also win.
Pakistan: LLWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Hong Kong: LWWWL
At his best, Khushdil Shah
is perhaps Pakistan's most powerful hitter of the ball, but in Pakistan's colours in T20I cricket, he has never come close to hitting those heights. In the game against India, which saw a limp performance from almost every Pakistan batter, Khushdil's innings - a timid 2 off 7 balls - still stood out for its total lack of intent. Perhaps a game against Hong Kong, whose bowlers don't quite offer the same threat as India's is just what he needs to produce a statement innings.
Hong Kong vice-captain Kinchit Shah
has had a memorable time of late. The allrounder was in decent form at the Asia Cup qualifiers and the Cricket World Cup Challenge Group, striking a half-century against Uganda and 139 against Bermuda, and picking up a four-wicket haul against Kenya. He was steady, if not quite explosive, with the bat against India, scoring 30 in 28 balls. Off the field too, things have been good. After the game against India, he proposed to his partner. A win against Pakistan to go through to the next stage would cap a blissful few days for Kinchit, both personal and professional.
The weather is expected to be oppressively hot throughout the tournament, and Friday in Sharjah will be no different. The slower bowlers have tended to prosper here of late, although the small boundaries might be a temptation for the batters too
There's a cloud around Naseem Shah's fitness. In the event of his absence, Mohammad Hasnain would be the like-for-like replacement.
Pakistan: (probable): 1 Babar Azam (capt) 2 Mohammad Rizwan (wk) 3 Fakhar Zaman 4 Iftikhar Ahmed 5 Khushdil Shah 6 Shadab Khan 7 Asif Ali 8 Mohammad Nawaz 9 Mohammad Hasnain 10 Haris Rauf 11 Shahnawaz Dahani
Despite the defeat to India, Hong Kong will have been encouraged by their performance, with the bat in particular. Expect an unchanged side.
Hong Kong (possible): 1 Nizakat Khan (capt) 2 Yasim Murtaza 3 Babar Hayat 4 Kinchit Shah 5 Aizaz Khan 6 Zeeshan Ali 7 Scott McKechnie (wk) 8 Haroon Arshad 9 Ehsan Khan 10 Ayush Shuka 11 Mohammad Ghazanfar