"India vs Pakistan. This is what cricket is all about."
"India-Pakistan rivalry is even bigger than the Ashes."
These are a couple of the more famous quotes that pertain to the India-Pakistan cricketing ties. Such is the intensity and glamour of the rivalry between the two nations that it often ranks among the greatest across all sports. No matter how bad the diplomatic ties get between the two nations, with the arch-rivals not having playing a Test series for the last 10 years as a result of the same, the hearts of most Indian and Pakistani fans still yearn for a contest between the two sides.
Sunday's game between the two Asian neighbours at Edgbaston, the fourth match of the ongoing tournament, grew in hype on the very day the schedule was announced. It has become a formula of sorts to slot at least one India-Pakistan match in every ICC tournament these days, preferably in the group stages, and the eighth edition of the 'Mini World Cup' continued along the same lines.
The only factor that dampens the rivalry somewhat in the lead-up to the big match is the difference in quality between the two sides. The sheer difference in the positions that the teams occupy on the ICC ODI rankings, with India and Pakistan at No 3 and 8 respectively, is a case in point. India appear the more balanced side on paper ahead of the match, and are coming on the back of a successful home season.
Pakistan, on the other hand, have struggled to find consistency since their heroics in the Test series against England last year, and it is their batting unit that appears to be the major chink in their armour. If not anything else, it is their ability to implode rather sensationally, which makes them all the more mercurial.
For the Pakistanis, their bowling unit will be expected to carry most of the burden, with established pacers such as Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz leading the attack for the 'Green Shirts'. Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur, while narrowing the probables list to 12 players just a day before the big game, said that the team were not likely to go with a third pacer in Junaid Khan, instead handing either middle-order batsman Faheem Ashraf or leg-spinner Shadab Khan their debut.
"We can't just sit back and let them score. We've got to attack them and we've got to look to bowl them out," said Arthur at a press conference on Saturday, while throwing in the names of medium-pacer Hasan Ali and left-arm spinner Imad Wasim into the probables list.
While bowling undoubtedly is their strength, the fact that they have the second-worst bowling average (39.90) among all teams post the 2015 World Cup is one that will take some of the shine off them.
As far as batting is concerned, Babar Azam will be relied on to get a majority of runs at the top of the order. Azam has turned out to be something of a talisman for Pakistan in recent years, as he became the second-highest run-getter after 25 innings, and shows the intent to apply himself at the crease and build a big innings as is the case with some of his contemporary greats, even if he still has a long way to go. Sarfraz Ahmed and Shoaib Malik are some of the other big names who will be key to guiding Pakistan to a big score.
Coming to India, the 'Men in Blue' seemed to get all their combinations right in the warm-up match against Bangladesh, in which they demolished the 'Tigers' by a whopping 240 runs. The balance in their squad, with the bowling unit now being perceived as a strength rather than a liability, adds further credit to the team.
The one man who stands out in the Indian camp, and not just from the Pakistani perspective, is captain Virat Kohli. The star, who enjoyed a Bradmanesque run last year including in the ICC World T20 and the Indian Premier League (IPL), is as pivotal to the Indian batting lineup at this age as Sachin Tendulkar was in the 1990s.
Sweeping most of his statistics and accolades to a corner for now, his mere record against Pakistan in ICC tournaments makes him the man to watch out for. A staggering average of 107.66 courtesy 323 runs from seven innings, including a century in the 2015 World Cup as well as a match-winning 55 in the World T20 last year, is what we are talking about here. No wonder Pakistan will consider the battle half-won should they get rid of him early.
India though, will hope for Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, both of whom have looked mercurial in the recent past, to get them off to good starts. Then there are the two pillars in the middle-order in the form of Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni, both of whom silenced their critics effectively in India's last ODI series, against England.
India's bowling attack has given the team management a good headache, with the presence of Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah, all of whom are in prime form at the moment, and showed great application not only in the warm-up game, but in less pace-friendly conditions back home during the IPL. While the inclusion of all-rounder Hardik Pandya seems to be pretty much in order, the nature of the wicket on Sunday morning will determine whether India will go with either Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja, or both.
India-Pakistan matches in ICC tournaments is often more a mental game than a skill-based one. The skewed win-loss ratio between the two sides, with India having defeated Pakistan 11 times in these competitions has been attributed to 'big-stage fright', something akin to that of South Africa in World Cup knockout matches.
While Pakistan enjoy a 2-1 lead over India in the Champions Trophy, that they were hammered by eight wickets at the same venue four years ago will haunt them.
Despite their immaculate record against the opposition, not to mention the favourites tag, Kohli and company will only take Pakistan lightly at their own risk.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Yuvraj Singh, Kedar Jadhav, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Hardik Pandya, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ajinkya Rahane, Dinesh Karthik, Ravichandran Ashwin.
Pakistan: Sarfraz Khan (c, wk), Ahmed Shahzad, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam, Faheem Ashraf, Fakhar Zaman, Haris Sohail, Hasan Ali, Imad Wasim, Junaid Khan, Mohammed Amir, Mohammed Hafeez, Shadab Khan, Shoaib Malik, Wahab Riaz.
With statistical inputs from Umang Pabari.