Shove away the rain abandonments babble for a while, sweep the debate on zing bails’ sturdiness under the carpet, forget the points table gibberish for a couple of days, it’s Pakistan crossing swords with India in the game’s greatest carnival this weekend and it doesn’t get bigger than this. It’s that time of the year again when the monster of all sporting rivalries elevates from its elongated slumber; when the subcontinent gets engulfed by a wave of hysteria and melodrama; when cricket becomes the chatter of the town with absolutely no parallel, whatsoever. Indo-Pak cricketing clashes have turned into more of a once in a blue moon affair rather than a frequent occurrence. Hence, the added galvanisation and frenzy attached to it.
The might of the clash and the extent of the bitter rivalry between these two cricketing titans can be gauged by the fact that it’s anticipated to attract an audience ten times the one we usually witness at the Super Bowl. On top of that, a staggering one billion television viewers are likely to come together to view the subcontinental showdown. When a fascinating bilateral hostility between these two cricketing impetuses makes its way into the home country of the game, the world is meant to come to a standstill.
As far as the World Cup campaigns of the two sides are concerned, Pakistan have gotten off to a rather torrid yet a Pakistan-like commencement to their tournament. They were stomped over by the Windies in their opening game before coming out of their state of disarray to stun the hosts in a nail-biting thriller at Nottingham. Pakistan’s third fixture against a feeble looking Sri Lanka was abandoned due to heavy showers and in their fourth encounter, Pakistan blundered and floundered to throw away what should have been a comprehensive triumph against inspirited Aussies.
India, on the contrary, are off and running right from the word go. Their pace battery is more lethal than it ever has been for more than a decade, their spin-twins keep incrementing their deceptive guile and their batting department boasts world beaters. India disposed of South Africa in their tournament opener before outpowering and outsmarting Australia in an intense match-up at the Oval. Their immensely vital clash against the Blackcaps was called off without even a single delivery being bowled due to persistent rains. This means that the Men in Blue have secured five points from their first three matches and are well positioned to bag a semi-finals berth.
When these two teams lock horns out in the field, no statistical records and no historical contexts are relevant enough. Recent performances can somehow offer one a visual trendline but anytime there is Pakistan involved in a bilateral battle of such intensity and following, one should be in for a roller-coaster ride. So, let’s dive right down into the five reasons why Pakistan can actually defy the odds and the naysayers and bring the daunting six-nil jinx to a rather abrupt conclusion in Manchester on Sunday.
Needless to say, Pakistan’s top order is the most consistently performing part of the team for quite some time now. The trio of Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul Haq and Babar Azam has been racking up runs for the past 18 months or so, all three of them incredibly averaging in the early to mid-fifties. Imam and Babar are the real mainstays in the batting department, you’d have to say. They have the potential to make it big on their day and squeeze the game away from the oppositions by expertly manoeuvring the ball around the field and flirting with calculated risks. They are technically sound enough to tackle Jasprit Bumrah’s perilous first spell upfront too.
Fakhar, on the other hand, seems to be the player who elevates to new heights given the momentous occasion. He is the man who has changed the outlook of this Pakistani batting line from an old woman pushing a shopping trolley to a rally car fluttering around bends dangerously and has soared to prestigious stardom after notching up that memorable century against these arch-nemeses in that fateful Champions Trophy final. There is no reason why he cannot emulate himself and wreak havoc on the Indian bowling again. If Fakhar gets going, there is no stopping the potential boundaries galore.
All three of Fakhar, Imam and Babar registered well-made centuries in the preceding series against England and have crucial runs and ominous forms under their belts. The two lefthanded openers stack a terrific opening pair and brilliantly complement each other. Then marches in the grace-lidded Babar Azam with all the class of batsmanship oozing out of him. If the top three fire for Pakistan, they can set up a solid platform and exert some extreme pressure on the Indians throughout the course of the match.
Pakistan are lucky enough to enjoy a plethora of experience in the middle-order with Shoaib Malik, skipper Sarfraz Ahmed and Mohammad Hafeez populating it. Together, the trio has made nearly 600 ODI appearances and it’s one aspect where Pakistan’s middle-order totally trumps India’s. The likes of Vijay Shankar/Rishabh Pant, Kedhar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya are still rookies in comparison to the elder statesmen that Pakistan possesses in shape of Hafeez and Malik. Hafeez’s ginger aggression and Malik’s savoir-faire are things that Pakistani fans cherish.
Although Malik hasn’t enjoyed the best of forms playing white-ball cricket in England, his numbers against India are pretty special and speak volumes of how he can be a handful in this crucial contest, too. His average soars to a staggering 48 while playing against the Men in Blue and he has four tons to his name versus India. Hafeez, inversely, has greatly modified his style of batting and nowadays he is all about taking the attack back to the bowlers and counterpunching his way through to game-changing cameos and blitzkriegs. He has shown glimpses of this in the on-going marquee event as well as in the 2017 Champions Trophy final where he dispatched the Indian bowlers to all parts of the park and upped the ante big time. He has the knack of remaining composed no matter how emotionally draining and nerve-wracking the situation is. Not to mention the pair’s heavenly expertise of playing spin according to their will and leaving the slower bowlers in conundrums, more often than not. Hafeez and Malik batting in tandem will make life difficult for the likes of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
Shikhar Dhawan, India’s celebrated opening batsman, incurred a thumb injury during his scintillating century against Australia that lit up the Oval. He, in all likeliness, will miss out on the next few games and it comes as a huge blow to the Indian management. The Dhawan-Sharma opening pair has been regarded as one of the best ever to grace the format. Together they have amassed nearly 5,000 runs in a period of nine years. They seem to gel together the whole Indian batting line up and instil stability in it from the very top.
With Dhawan’s injury now, Kohli and co have a lot to ponder over as to who shall be opening with Rohit and who fills the void in the middle order provided KL Rahul’s promotion to Number 2 is up-and-coming. There is a sense of fragility in this Indian batting line-up now and if Pakistan can dent them early on and squeeze in the pressure, you never know India might get bundled out cheaply again. Encircling Dhoni and Kohli is a lot of inexperience and rawness and Pakistan just need to get their act right and smartly expose the likes of Vijay Shankar, Kedhar Jadhav and even Hardik Pandya.
KL Rahul is a classy touch player but he has had his share of dilemmas with consistency and temperament. He has to bridge the gap at the top of the order and continue on from where Dhawan left it at the Oval. This may well be an intimidating task given the severity of the situation that might eventually end up getting onto Rahul’s nerves. Therein lies Pakistan’s chance of scalping an early wicket or two and get on top of India.
One of the few bright spots for Pakistan in what turned out to be a murky outing against Australia was Mohammad Amir’s sizzling five-wicket haul, astonishingly his first ever too since debuting nearly ten years ago. With a bit of a cloud cover around, Amir lit up Taunton with a fiery opening spell. Several oooh’s and aaah’s were audible during his initial overs as the sparkling Kookaburra whizzed and whooshed past Aaron Finch and David Warner’s hanging willows several times. It wasn’t before his third and last spell that Amir unleashed carnage over the Kangaroos. He picked up Khawaja with a beautifully disguised slower delivery, had Shaun Marsh and Mitchell Starc mowing down the wide long-on’s throat and rapped Alex Carey plumb in front with an absolute sandshoe crusher. At present, he has the most number of wickets to his name in this edition, thus far, and has been very miserly as far as bowling strike rates and averages are concerned.
Indian batsmen are no strangers to the left-armer. Amir had the same batting line wholly clueless and had them dance around his extravagant swing in Dhaka’s Sher-e-Bangla Stadium back in 2016. But it’s the Champions Trophy Final’s opening spell that may still be quite afresh amongst the Men in Blue. That day, Amir was relentless as he ripped through the Indian top-order, plucking out one great of the game after the other. Amir will be licking his lips to see a new, unsettled face in India’s top-three and if he can make the ball talk early on, there is definite trouble looming over the Indians. Preceding the World Cup, Amir was having a dreadful time with the ball, but he is gradually regaining his vintage best and this is the time he really turns it around and puts on a show that generations of the game will adore and treasure. He makes things happen on the biggest stages and this, indeed, is a big stage with a lot at stake.
For the last half-decade or so, India have relished an upper-hand over Pakistan in most of the cricketing encounters between the two sides. The 2017 Champions Trophy final is one spectacle, though, that tends to shift the balances due to its magnitudinal grandeur. Pakistan barnstormed to a mammoth victory back then and despite being comprehensively beaten in the consequent clashes against the arch-rivals in 2018’s Asia Cup, the headlines are still stolen by that particular outing at London’s Oval.
Every reference to an Indo-Pak clash nowadays leads to a trip down the memory lane of the monumental eve and Pakistani fans can’t really help themselves but prophesize the future clashes just on that. And it’s true that with so much at risk to lose, nerves do get the better of most players. On the back of the mind, Amir’s searing spell and Fakhar’s blazing cuts and hicks still flash like agonizing memoirs of the past for Indians. Old Trafford bears a similar aura to Kennington Oval and will be fluttering with jitters and exhilaration once the players stroll out. It’s forecasted to be grim and chilly; the kind of weather ghosts thrive and blossom in. This won’t be anything like playing in Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy, Mumbai’s Wankhede or the famed Eden Gardens. There will be the reverberating of the dhols, the pulsating screams from the Pakistani stringent in the audiences and the thunderous roars that will encircle the ground when Pakistan are playing well. The pin-drop silence that is characteristic of the Indian venues when opposing teams are on top will be totally out of context here. And amidst the drama and the ear-popping clamour that day, if Pakistan can exert enough pressure, the eeriness of the place will intimidate the Men in Blue and the ghosts of the past will come back to bedevil them.