The Asia Cup sees the continent's five best sides go head-to-head over a fortnight, culminating in the two top-ranked sides squaring off in a grand final on Saturday 8 March.
Minnows Afghanistan appear in the tournament for the first time in their history and they will take on Sri Lanka at the Shere Bangala National Stadium in Mirpur on Monday 3 March.
Sri Lanka will naturally be the overwhelming favourites going into this one and will be keen to make it three wins in a row after already beating India and Pakistan in this year's competition.
But after an unprecedented rise in recent years, this Afghanistan team will have little fear when it comes to facing their more illustrious opponents. They will also be buoyed by their historic victory over Bangladesh in their second game of the competition, their first against a Test-playing nation.
It means there is plenty at stake for both sides in Monday’s showdown, so lets take a look at who are going to be the key players in this clash and take an educated punt at what the final outcome will be.
Even at the ripe old age of 36, Sangakkara is still turning in outstanding performances on a unwaveringly consistent basis. In this series so far he’s scored 67 and 103 against Pakistan and India respectively; he’s obviously in superb touch as we enter the final knockings of this tournament.
After giving the Indian and Pakistani bowling attacks the runaround, you have to wonder what Sangakkara could potentially do to the weakest bowling attack in the competition. The Sri Lankan ‘keeper has an outstanding and varied range of shots, so it’s difficult to see any of the Afghan bowlers pinning him down or snaffling his wicket early.
If Sangakkara gets in and gets set then it'll be a long day for the Afghan fielders. He has the capabilities to help Sri Lanka post a stratospheric batting total should they bat first in this one.
The man dubbed “the slinger” due to his unique bowling style remains one of the most feared bowlers on the planet. Whilst he can be occasionally erratic and a little wayward, when he gets it right Malinga can send a batsman's stumps flying.
An expert when it comes to bowling at the death, Malinga combines raw pace with subtle variations to bamboozle opposition batsmen. His yorkers are often devastating, whilst his canny use of the slower ball keeps any batsman guessing. He's the only bowler to have ever taken three hat-tricks in ODI internationals, which affirms his pedigree as one of the greatest ODI bowlers of his generation.
As is the case with Sangakkara, you feel that Malinga will be too classy an operator for their Afghan opponents. Unless, of course he has one of his off-day’s, on which he can go for a lot of runs.
If that proves to be the case, it remains to be seen if the Afghan batsmen have the ability to punish him. But having taken six wickets already in this Asia Cup competition, Malinga is looking fast and in form. You certainly don’t envy the job of the Afghanistan batsmen when he’s steaming in.
Playing for just the fourth time against one of the major cricketing nations, Afghanistan secured an historic win against Test-playing Bangladesh in their last outing.
The bedrock of that victory came after a remarkable 164-run sixth wicket partnership between Asghar Stanikazi and Samiullah Shenwari, who scored 90 and 81 respectively.
Shenwari was the star of the show for Afghanistan, as he injected some much-needed impetus into a toiling innings. The 26-year-old made his 81 off just 69 balls, which included 10 fours and a six. Batting at No. 7, it’s crucial that Shenwari makes quick runs once he comes in and with the firepower in the Sri Lankan bowling attack, you suspect that he’ll be seeing some action pretty early on.
He must keep his head, play sensibly and hopefully give his team a fighting chance. For once he’s gone, there is little batting left in this Afghanistan line-up.
Whilst it would be wonderful to see Afghanistan give Sri Lanka a real run for their money, there is only one outcome on the cards here and that's an emphatic Sri Lankan victory.
Sri Lanka have looked imperious in beating India and Pakistan, so they should have no problems dispatching this plucky but technically inferior Afghanistan team.
If Sangakkara and Co. bat first they will post in excess of 350 and that will be way beyond the reach of their opponents. On the flip-side, if Afghanistan bat first, Malinga will blitz through their top order early on.
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