Virat Kohli: "In Test cricket, we (India) have been able to reach the top with that mindset, having the hunger to win. We have taken it across all formats. Ruthlessness is something we definitely speak about all the time. We go in with that mindset and that goes a long way in a tournament like this."
Here is a captain who has architected his team’s rise to the number one Test rank. His team even registered series wins in his first full series as ODI and T20I captain earlier this year. Ever since he has taken over as the permanent captain of the Indian team from MS Dhoni, his boys are yet to lose a series. He is also the heart of the team’s batting unit. His words define merciless. Merciless is what they intend to be against any rival that comes in the way of their crown.
Sarfraz Ahmed: "It is my first major tournament as captain. Definitely we (Pakistan) are very hopeful and really excited about this tournament. We are No. 8, so we have nothing to lose. That’s why I told the players to just play their natural game."
Here is a captain who has started off his stint as the leader of the ODI side well with a series win in the Caribbean. But until about more than a year ago, he had to keep a watch over his shoulders for the competition to his spot from the Akmal brothers. He has enjoyed decent success as a T20I captain, yet there is no word on whether he will take over as the leader of the Test team from the now-retired Misbah-ul-Haq. This is not entirely his team yet. He has not stamped his authority on the side. His words define hope. Hope that a good time on the park could lead them to the title.
The above statements were made by the captains of the India and Pakistan team in a press conference ahead of the Champions Trophy in England and Wales. They exemplified contrast in approach. But Sarfraz and Kohli were different not merely for the minutes they took out to answer questions ahead of the global tournament. They are different as personalities, players and captains.
Kohli leads his team out onto the field. Invariably the first one to take the field, he calls for a team huddle, and the team listens as he speaks in the huddle. He may joke around in the pavilion, but he his look only means business on the park.
On the field, Kohli is everywhere. He thrives on the attention. He was born to lead. He takes up the most crucial fielding positions. He celebrates every wicket with a roar that resonates amongst his teammates. His arms barely manage any rest as he waves them either to catch the attention of his fielders, whom he wishes to move, or he is busy playing the choirmaster to the orchestra of the crowd, involving the crowd as their 12th man.
Kohli is the master of the stage called the cricket field. The team and the crowd are his men. And, there is little doubt about it.
Sarfraz, on the other hand, is characterized by his team. He jogs out with his teammates, shares smiles with them and is not necessarily the only one talking in the team huddle.
As a wicketkeeper, Sarfraz is always in the midst of action. But if someone is not aware of who Pakistan’s captain is, his body language will not give it away. He may be vociferous in his appeals but he celebrates his wickets with smiles more than with a clamor.
Unlike Kohli, Sarfraz may not ask his team to follow a particular path. Instead, he may support the path they choose. It may not always be about him, but he is always a central figure in the Pakistan side.
The quality of Sarfraz’s team, however, is yet to match that of Kohli’s men. Apart from being the world’s best in Test cricket, India are also the third best in ODI cricket. They are the titleholders of the Champions Trophy.
And, as they head into the current edition, they boast of experience in their batting with proven performers like MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan apart from Kohli himself. Bowling, which used to be their weak link too, this time wears a frightening look with the pace attack of Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami all in red-hot form to complement the vicious spin duo of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
Pakistan’s old hands of Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik are effective, but not as illustrious as their Indian counterparts. While they have youngsters like Babar Azam and Ahmed Shehzad who have shown promise, their batting lacks the power to worry opponents. Their pace attack, comprising of Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz, Junaid Khan and Hasan Ali is impressive, as expected, but bowlers alone cannot win matches if the batsmen do not contribute with enough runs.
It is not surprising that the Pakistan team has had inconsistent results. The talent shines through when they go to England and draw the Test series, but it flatters to deceive when they are outclassed in the ODI series that follows. In fact, they dominated West Indies in the UAE after the tour of England only to travel to New Zealand and Australia and suffer defeats.
Pakistan can excite and disappoint in equal measure, and there is not much Sarfraz as captain can do about it. But what he will eventually do is improve his already flourishing game.
Sarfraz’s batting is, perhaps, the only consistent aspect of Pakistan’s side marred by inconsistency. But, his team and his country demand more. Especially now, since he is the captain of the limited-overs sides and the captain-in-waiting of the Test side.
When Kohli is at the crease, he personifies poise. His stance is still, his back is straight, his eyes are transfixed on the bowler and his bat appears to tap the wicket just the right number of times. When he finally plays a shot, like when he leans himself into his favourite cover drive, it is the perfect picture for an artist to make a portrait of. He has repeated this artistry for years, handing attacks across the globe sleepless nights.
The Pakistan skipper’s batting is fun too, like the approach he advocates. When Sarfraz is in his stance, the bend on his back appears to glare through, his body seems to lean on to his bat and he comes across as slightly unprepared to face the delivery. Then begins the surprise. Suddenly, his body quickly shifts into the best position for a particular shot and executes it with élan.
Sarfraz has only become a regular member of the Pakistan side over the last few years. Even after which, he has batted down the order. Hence, the runs have not come in the same numbers as they have for Kohli. But if Pakistan are to achieve the success similar to Kohli’s India, they will need their captain’s consistent returns to turn unstoppable.
An India-Pakistan encounter is the perfect platform for a hero to turn into a superhero and for a superhero to attain God-like status. Sarfraz will aim for the former, Kohli will hope for the latter when the two teams meet in Birmingham on Sunday.
But, like everything else about them, the approach of the two captains towards the high-voltage clash is different.
“Yes, India-Pakistan game is always very exciting for all the fans watching and the atmosphere in the stadium is different from any other game, but for us, it just a game of cricket. The hype created around is not in our control. We prepare the same for every game. The atmosphere around is different yes, but in our heads nothing changes whether it’s any team, it is exactly the same for us,” said Kohli, who had no intentions of adding to the hype of what is expected to be an intense affair.
Sarfraz, however, was clear that to beat India was one of Pakistan’s primary objectives at the Champions Trophy. “We have a better record against India in the Champions Trophy, not in other competitions, but we do well in this. We’re looking to maintain that against them and it’s very exciting.”
Despite all the differences, when India and Pakistan head into the much-awaited clash, the desire of the two captains will be the same – to come out triumphant. And, it may come down to a face off between Kohli’s brutality and Sarfraz’s charm.