An emergent theme of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 so far has been the struggle of the sub-continental nations, barring hosts India. Somewhat counter-intuitively, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan have all found the going tough in the showpiece tournament, despite their familiarity with the conditions. While India have gone from strength to strength, all the other Asian outfits have floundered and find themselves outside the top four, midway through the group stage. Pakistan and Afghanistan were both beaten soundly in their previous games, and will look to claw their way back into the competition when they face off at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai on Monday, October 23. (Match Blog | Scorecard | Streaming | Full Coverage)
Five-time ODI World Cup champions Australia out-batted and out-bowled Pakistan to leave them a sizeable 62 runs short in Bengaluru, while New Zealand gave Afghanistan a reality check with a 149-run thrashing in Chennai. For the Afghans, the humbling defeat follows a heartwarming triumph against defending champions England, which means the Hashmatullah Shahidi-led side need to go back to the drawing board and figure out a solution to their batting woes.
For Pakistan, the catching and new-ball bowling have been the pain points, as was admitted by captain Babar Azam after the loss to the Aussies. Had the Men In Green not dropped centurion David Warner twice, they might have had a much smaller target than 368 to contend with. This was Pakistan's second consecutive defeat after the drubbing by arch-rivals India in Ahmedabad.
Having lost three games in the tournament already, the Afghans cannot afford another slip-up. As for Pakistan, it is all about setting the record straight with a dominant victory to leap into the top four. Both teams would be desperate to win on Monday and keep their qualification hopes alive.
Let's look at three key battles that could be decisive in the Pakistan vs Afghanistan encounter in Chennai on Monday:
Babar Azam Vs Rashid Khan
Considering how much value the two players add to their respective teams, this battle can be billed as the clash of the titans. Pakistan captain Babar Azam remains their batting lynchpin and the team relies disproportionately on him, be it while batting first or chasing. The Men In Green will again bank on Babar to hold the innings together, but to do that he will have to surmount Rashid Khan's challenge. The spin-bowling all-rounder has the ability to unsettle the best in the business with his zippy leg breaks and deceptive googlies, and would love to see Babar's back early to put the Afghans in front.
Shaheen Shah Afridi Vs Hashmatullah Shahidi
Pakistan pace spearhead Shaheen Shah Afridi has gradually come into his own and is now firing on all cylinders in the World Cup. Afridi's five-wicket haul against Australia in Bengaluru may not have been enough to win the game for his side, but it catapulted him into the top five wicket-takers' list and would have spurred him on to do even better in the coming matches. He will need to be at his best against Afghan captain Hashmatullah Shahidi, who hit a magnificent 88-ball 80 against India and could well do the same against the latter's arch-rivals Pakistan.
Mohammad Rizwan Vs Mujeeb Ur Rahman
Pakistan wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan has been the most consistent batter on display in the World Cup so far. With scores of 68, 131 not out, 49 and 46, no wonder Rizwan currently tops the run-scorers list. His strong show is critical to Pakistan's fortunes, and standing in his way will be 22-year-old Afghan off-spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman, who, like Rashid, has all the variations to flummox batters. Mujeeb picked three wickets in his team's giant-slaying act against defending champs England, and he would aim to replicate that against Pakistan.