On the eve of the World T20 Final in Johannesburg in 2007, Ian Chappell was asked to pick a favourite between India and Pakistan. Chappell reluctant to predict anything said if someone is holding a gun to his head and he has to answer then it would be Pakistan. That was perhaps the last time any expert rated Pakistan favourites before a match against India.
In every series or tournament since the inaugural World T20, India have been a better team compared to Pakistan. But the situation will be different when the arch-rivals square off in Asia Cup in Dubai tomorrow. For the first time in over a decade, Pakistan will have an upper hand while locking horns against India in any format. Many experts, including India’s Sanjay Manjrekar, has tipped Pakistan to win the tournament.
There is so much to admire about Pakistan’s current ODI team. It is a far cry from what it was a few years ago. In 2015, the team had slipped to nine in the ODI rankings and did not have any player good enough to find a spot in World ODI XI. Today, Pakistan are winners of the Champions Trophy, number one in T20Is, moving towards the upper tier of the ODI Rankings and had two of their players, Babar Azam and Hasan Ali, selected in ICC’s ODI team of the year 2017. Two more, Fakhar Zaman and Shadab Khan, are as good as any other limited overs players in the world.
A major problem with the team before Mickey Arthur took over in 2016 was the fitness of the players. Pakistan at that time was perhaps the least fit unit among established cricket teams and that was having an effect on their performances on the field. Even if a player had skills to bat or bowl, he wasn’t able to construct long innings or bowl long spells. (Read: Sharjeel Khan and Sohail Khan).
Mickey made it clear to players that no matter how talented one is he won’t be considered for the selection if he is not fit enough to be on the field. Today, Pakistan players can claim to be among the best in the world in the terms of fitness and one of the better fielding units.
Pakistan’s catch-success rate since Jan, 2017 is 5 percent more than the preceding two years and is better than Australia and South Africa according to Cricinfo. Since the fielding is directly related to fitness, it has improved their ability to run out batsmen. Pakistan’s run outs per match ratio in ODIs in the last two years is the best for any team but Bazid Khan, the cricketer-turned-commentator, believes it is partly due to Pakistan’s great bowling unit that pressurises batsmen and force them to take risks. In either way, Pakistan players are an improved unit.
Put all these factors together and one would be convinced to believe that Pakistan appear to be a better team than India ahead of the marquee clash in Dubai. This is not to say that India should be entirely written off.
India have won 9 of their last ten bilateral ODI series, have world’s number one ODI bowler in Jasprit Bumrah, a mystery spinner in Kuldeep Yadav and beaten Pakistan in 5 out of the last six games across formats but their biggest worry is the absence of Virat Kohli, who has been rested for the tournament.
So large is Kohli’s influence on the team that without him the team appears to be a second-string Indian unit. His absence also leaves India’s middle-order with an uncertain combination. While Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul are likely to form the top three, India are not sure who will be at number four and five.
Another worry for India is the absence of the sixth bowler. Kedar Jadhav, if selected ahead of Ambati Rayudu, Manish Pandey or Dinesh Karthik, though is capable of tweaking a few overs but might not be of much use against Asians who tend to play spin better than others.
Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal and Hardik Pandya will form India’s bowling attack and if anyone of them has a bad day there won’t be any back-up. Pakistan on the other hand are likely to retain the XI that played against Hong Kong which means India will have to deal with four fast bowlers.
The only worry for Pakistan is Mohammad Amir’s form – he has just 3 wickets in eight ODIs since the Champions Trophy final. The captain Sarfraz Ahmed also admitted that the bowler lacked rhythm against Hong Kong but said he is working with the coaches to be at his best in the tournament.
It goes without saying that Amir is a big match-player and history suggests he saves his best for high-octane games as he showed at Lord’s this year. Even before he bowls, his three wickets spell that scythed through India’s top order at the Oval last year will be playing in the minds of India. The question remains will India’s batsmen be able to thwart his threat this time?