An India-Pakistan sporting encounter can never be just another game, be it hockey or cricket. Therefore when the two foes meet on Sunday, 18 June 2017, at The Oval, London, in the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 final — expect fireworks! There is bound to be a lot of pressure on both teams, a bit of on-field acrimony and some bad blood too.
Watch out, for it’s sure to be a high-octane bout.
England’s meek surrender
England’s timid batting, aided by a sluggish, under-prepared track at Cardiff, has helped pit a resurgent Pakistan against India in the final of the Champions Trophy, hosted by England Wales.
England had bludgeoned their way through the group stage and, on form, should have massacred their semi-final opponents. But in cricket — as in life — things don’t pan out on ‘form’ all the time. Making clever use of the overworked surface at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff, the Pakistani bowlers throttled the English batsmen and helped beat them by eight wickets to take a shot at winning the cup for the first time.
When Pakistan had lost to India by a huge margin in their first Group B encounter on 4 June, at Edgbaston, there had been a lot of breast-beating across the Wagah Border. Former fast bowler, Sarfaraz Nawaz had even gone to the extent of demanding an inquiry into why Pakistan lost!
Fearing the worst, perhaps, the Pakistani cricketers regrouped quickly and beat South Africa — via the Duckworth-Lewis method. In a rare, rear-guard action led by skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed, they then chased down Sri Lanka’s score of 236 in 44.5 overs, after being in the dumps at 137-6, to qualify for the semi-finals.
The biggest upset of an already topsy-turvy tournament, as stated earlier, was caused by Pakistan in the semi-finals. Playing on a surface that was used for a match a few days earlier, the Englishmen suddenly found it difficult to score runs. The fact that the usually fluent Ben Stokes scored 34 off 64 deliveries — with no boundary hits — tells of how listless the track was.
It should be said, however, that the Pakistani bowlers used the track cleverly to shoot the opposition out for 211 in 49.5 overs. Taking advantage of the between-innings roller — and England’s flagging spirit — the Pakistanis romped home in the 37th over.
The England side believed that the curators at Cardiff had done them in. Rather than getting ‘home advantage’, the wicket seemed to have been tailor-made for the Pakistanis and therefore the hosts had reason to be annoyed.
Surprises and Upsets
Overall, the ICC Champions Trophy of 2017 produced some surprising results. The Australians — strong, pre-tournament contenders for the title — were chucked out of the event by rain. Their matches against New Zealand and Bangladesh were washed out, and under pressure to beat England in their last group match, to qualify, they were declared ‘dead’ by the Duckworth-Lewis chart.
Another very talented side, the South Africans — who are prone to choking, were eliminated at the league stage.
The wonderfully gifted New Zealanders had to beat Bangladesh in their final group match, at Cardiff, to qualify for the semi-finals. After scoring a below par 265, they had the Bangladeshis on the mat at 33-4. But brilliant hundreds from Shakib-Al-Hassan and Mahmudullah saw the latter going through to the penultimate rounds. The Sri Lankans, who were said to be a team in transition, also scored an upset win over India at the group stage.
As expected though, India ran roughshod over the Bangladeshis in the semi-finals to take their rightful place in the finals. After Bangladesh managed a below par 264 for 7 in 50 overs at Birmingham, India scored a double quick win in the 40th over, losing only one wicket.
Who will win?
The million dollar question now is: ‘Will Pakistan surprise India in the final?’
For starters, let’s see who will play: India should go into the contest with the same, winning combination. The inclusion of Hardik Pandya and Ravichandran Ashwin could be debated, along with that of Yuvraj Singh. Pandya is someone who could turn the tide of a match with a cameo knock, a short spell of fiery bowling or a brilliant piece of fielding. He gives off a hundred per cent, all the time, and therefore lifts the team’s spirits.
Ashwin isn’t bowling at his best at the moment, especially after his break during the IPL season of 2017. His turn and bounce seem to have forsaken him and as a result, his variations no longer trouble the opposition batsmen. He and Yuvraj Singh are also slow movers in the outfield. But then, skipper Virat Kohli and the team management will expect their experience to get the team out of tricky situations and therefore they will, in all probability, be part of the playing eleven.
For Pakistan, the concern will be the fitness of left-arm pace-ace, Mohammad Amir, as the final approaches. If fit, he should replace Rumman Raees in the first eleven, with the rest of the players who played in the semi-finals against England selecting themselves.
Challengers, Pakistan will bank on their bowlers picking wickets at regular intervals to prevent the in-form Indian batsmen from running away with the match. Amir, if fit, along with Hasan Ali and Junaid Khan could pose problems for the Indians with their accuracy and movement off the track.
The white Kookaburra balls, in use at the Champions Trophy 2017, have hardly swung in the air throughout the tournament. Hence the Pak bowlers’ ability to move the ball off the seam and to reverse swing the ball at the ‘death’ could hold them in good stead.
Spinners Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan and Mohammad Hafeez — with a modified action — shouldn’t trouble the talented and in-form Indian batsmen. Pakistan, with their pacers doing well, may therefore contemplate dropping either Imad or Shadab to strengthen their batting.
Pakistan’s batting, consisting of Azhar Ali, Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam, Hafeez, Shoaib Malik and Sarfaraz Ahmed seems to be brittle and is liable to crumble at the first sign of pressure. The inclusion of the experienced Ahmed Shehzad in the top order may therefore be a boon.
Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli seem to be in sublime form at present. Following them will be Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav and Ravindra Jadeja — all capable of scoring briskly. The Pakistani attack will, therefore, have to be accurate and use clever variations to keep them quiet.
As far as bowling goes, the Indians will rely heavily on Bhuvneshwar Kumar to give them early breakthroughs, with Jasprit Bumrah chipping in. How India bowls in the middle overs, with Ashwin and Jadeja in operation, will to a large extent determine the score Pakistan can put up on the board.
India have the edge
Getting Fakhar Zaman out early will place a lot of pressure on the other Pakistani batsmen. The England bowlers’ plan of bouncing him out failed miserably in the semi-finals and therefore, the Indian think tank will do well to have a Plan A, Plan B and, perhaps, a Plan C for him. He has scored heavily from deliveries pitched outside off stump, but he can surely be tied down with a middle-and-off-stump attack.
With a thumping win against Pakistan at the group stage, the Indians will feel confident and have that mental edge over their adversaries. A resurgent Pakistan, on the other hand, led from the front by Sarfaraz Ahmed will thirst for revenge. 1.32 billion Indians will pray for an India win, while 202 million Pakistanis will wish Pakistan wins.
Team India, with its extraordinary talent has the edge, but you can never count the Pakistanis out. Perhaps, for the moment, the chances of an India win are 60:40!
The author is a former fast bowler, a sports administrator and mental toughness coach, besides being a sportswriter and caricaturist