DELHI — In a Cricket World Cup that has so far failed to register any genuine shocks, England will be keen to ensure they are not the first major nation to suffer one when they take on Afghanistan on Sunday.
The Afghans are the second-worst team in this tournament if we are going on rankings and lost their first two games against Bangladesh and India comfortably.
Yet Jos Buttler’s side know they will be a potential banana skin in sub-continental conditions here in Delhi and cannot afford a slip-up against a team they will be expected to beat with ease.
The good news for England is that this venue has so far produced pitches that are extremely good for batting – South Africa set a World Cup record total of 428 for five in the first game and India, against Afghanistan, eased to a target of 273 with 15 overs to spare in the second on Wednesday.
This match, the defending champions’ third of nine in the group stage, will be contested on a fresh pitch and unless there is a wild deviation from the first two games here then conditions should play into the hands of a team who have made a habit of posting monster totals over the past eight years or so.
That’s exactly what happened in the last 50-over match between these teams at Old Trafford in the 2019 World Cup, when former captain Eoin Morgan hit an ODI record 17 sixes during a 150-run win.
England posted 397 for six that day in Manchester, with Afghanistan’s star leg-spinner Rashid Khan going wicketless for 110 off his nine overs.
Rashid, perhaps the best white-ball spinner in the world, will be a different proposition in India.
“He doesn’t need helpful conditions to cause mayhem,” warned Jonathan Trott, the former England batter who’s now Afghanistan’s head coach.
In terms of qualification for the semi-finals, England will be keen to register a straightforward second victory of the tournament after the opening defeat by New Zealand last week was followed by a comprehensive win against Bangladesh in Dharamshala on Tuesday.
Another here would take Buttler’s men a third of the way towards the six wins that should be enough to secure their place in the last four and set them up nicely for a blockbuster encounter with South Africa, one of the form teams of the tournament so far, in Mumbai next Saturday.
England vs Afghanistan
Venue: Arun Jaitley Stadium
Date: 15th October
Start time: 9.30am
England team (probable): JM Bairstow, DJ Malan, JE Root, HC Brook, JC Buttler (capt/wkt), LS Livingstone, SM Curran, CR Woakes, AU Rashid, MA Wood, RJW Topley
Afghanistan team (probable): R Gurbaz (wkt), I Zadran, R Shah, H Shahidi (capt), A Omarzai, M Nabi, N Zadran, R Khan, M Rahman, N Ul-Haq, F Farooqi
Umpires: Sharfuddoula (BD), R Tucker (AU)
TV umpire: P Reiffel (AU)
Pitch: A fresh pitch that should be great for batting
Weather: 35°C sunny
That’s a match England look set to unleash Ben Stokes in, the talisman and hero of the team’s 2019 World Cup victory who has been laid low with a hip injury for the first two games.
Stokes has improved rapidly over the past 24 hours and is understood to be keen to play against Afghanistan.
But i understands coach Matthew Mott and Buttler are keen to hold Stokes back for next weekend’s crunch match against South Africa and he is set to miss out again on Sunday.
“Ben seems to be getting better day by day,” said teammate Joe Root. “As we all know, any team with Ben in it is a lot stronger, but he’s got to be fit to play.”
The only way England don’t cruise past Afghanistan is if they take them lightly but Root says there is no fear of a shock defeat.
“We don’t want to look at what could go wrong, we’ll look at what we can do right and how we can affect the game in the right manner,” he said. “They’ve obviously got some world-class players.
“From our point of view, we’ve just got to look to keep getting better. We weren’t where we wanted to be in the first game but we were considerably better against Bangladesh.
“This is another opportunity for us to take another big stride forward and keep building that momentum towards the business end of this tournament, and making sure we are where we need to be by the back end.”
England look set to name an unchanged team, with Chris Woakes recovered from the illness that saw him miss training on Friday and fast bowler Mark Wood unlikely to be rested given there is a six-day gap before the South Africa match.