By R Kaushik in Mirpur
A contest that has more fan following than any other in cricket will be decided as much on mental strength as on cricketing skills
The ICC World Twenty20, rapidly carving a niche for itself in the cricketing calendar even if it still has some way to traverse before matching the 50-over World Cup in prestige and stature, has evolved tremendously from being the hit-and-giggle show many had perceived it would become when the inaugural edition was played out in South Africa in 2007. It has undergone changes in format, becoming more inclusive and allowing the Associate nations the opportunity to rub shoulders with the established Test countries on as equal a footing as is possible under the circumstances.
No more than an hour after the last of the qualifying matches conclude in Sylhet on Friday (March 21) evening, the Super 10s will get underway at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium. What better match to kick off the ‘tournament proper’ than the latest act of the India v Pakistan rivalry, a rivalry that has more fan following across the world than the one between old foes England and Australia.
Due to various reasons, few of them cricketing, India and Pakistan don’t play each other all too often bilaterally. When Pakistan toured India for two Twenty20 Internationals and three One-Day Internationals in December 2012-January 2013, it was the first bilateral showdown between the teams since 2007. Consequently, when they face off in multi-nation events such as the World Cup, the Champions Trophy or the World T20, there is an added external edge that the protagonists are likely to be influenced by.
That India-Pakistan matches are decided as much on strength of mind as on cricketing skills is no empty statement, no fanciful exaggeration. The air of nonchalance that players from both sides embrace is in itself a dead giveaway. It is impossible not to be sucked into the emotion that surrounds this particular contest. Admittedly, it is no longer the end-of-the-world battle it once used to be, but don’t believe what the players tell you. India v Pakistan can never be just another cricket match.
Shahid Afridi’s tournament-ending sixes off R Ashwin will still be fresh in the memory of the fans as well as the players from both sides when Mohammad Hafeez and Mahendra Singh Dhoni stride out for the toss at the Sher-e-Bangla on Friday night. It was at this same venue that, three weeks back, an Afridi-driven Pakistan had ended India’s Asia Cup interest with an extraordinary last-over, one-wicket victory. That passage of play will have little or no bearing on what happens on Friday; in saying that, fans, experts and the media tend to keep harping on match-changing, tournament-defining moments, so it will be naive not to expect the players themselves to at least reflect, if only in passing, on those spine-tingling moments.
If Pakistan’s fans will take heart from the Afridi pyrotechnics, India’s supporters will point to the remarkable statistic of Pakistan never having gotten the better of its side in eight tries combined in the 50-over and Twenty20 World Cups. Again, this will not influence the outcome of what happens on the morrow, but as those beyond the immediate core group of both teams look for omens and portents, such coincidences do come in handy.
If there is, however, one cricketing logic driven pointer, it is the vast difference in the quantum of T20I cricket the two teams play. Pakistan has played the most T20Is of the eight major Test-playing nations, 78, while India has played the least, 46. India’s players have repeatedly pointed to the experience and exposure gained by being a part of the IPL, and while that can’t be disputed, the value of turning out as a team for sustained periods of time can never be overestimated.
India and Pakistan are both former winners of the World T20, but the similarity ends there. Since its unexpected triumph in 2007, India hasn’t so much as threatened to make it to the knockout semifinals; Pakistan, champions in 2009, has made at least the semifinal of each of the four preceding World T20s, its consistency and increased familiarity with the format giving it the slightest of edges.
Their build-up to the competition has been similarly patchy – India lost its first warm-up tie to Sri Lanka, then overwhelmed England in its second game, while Pakistan took the opposite route, getting the better of New Zealand before being brushed aside by South Africa, when it was rolled over for 71. Just how much should be read into these results is open to conjecture. Teams use these warm-up games to suss up conditions, work out strategies, test out the bench and identify solutions for potential problem areas. Towards that extent, no matter the results, both teams should have garnered useful information about themselves.
They would also have picked up more cues, if they were necessary at all, about the conditions at the Sher-e-Bangla, the nature of the pitch, the quantum of dew, the combination that will work best given the conditions. Homework done, it’s now time for the real deal – for three hours of what everyone hopes will be pulsating action.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt, wk), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Varun Aaron, Amit Mishra, Mohit Sharma, Stuart Binny, Ajinkya Rahane.
Pakistan: Mohammad Hafeez (capt), Sharjeel Khan, Ahmed Shehzad, Shoaib Malik, Umar Akmal, Kamran Akmal (wk), Shahid Afridi, Umar Gul, Junaid Khan, Saaed Ajmal, Mohammad Talha, Sohaib Maqsood, Sohail Tanvir, Zulfiqar Babar, Bilawal Bhatti.