Who doesn't love a India vs Pakistan battle, on the cricket field?
The rivalry that has has been described by even The New York Times as the "world’s greatest sporting rivalry" with "all the feelings of the New York Yankees vs Boston Red Sox rivalry in baseball, Barcelona vs Real Madrid in soccer and England vs Australia in any sport had been distilled and deepened with an extra dose of hostile geopolitics and the passions of 1.4 billion people," is all set for its next chapter on Saturday as the two neighbours take on each other in Asia Cup.
For citizens of both countries, it's the ultimate cricket match, and for the rest of the cricketing world, it's a match to watch out for.
While the two teams may not play a bilateral series any more thanks to numerous external factors, when they do meet in major tournaments, they give us a match to remember. Be it the first ever ICC World Twenty20 or the recent 2015 World Cup match, India vs Pakistan encounters have been full of superlative performances, high on emotions, both for players and fans. And there is so much more to the matches than just the result -- from records to bragging rights (just ask that Mauka, Mauka guy!)
In Asia Cup too, there have been remarkable matches, from Virat Kohli's fantastic 183 to to Shahid Afridi's lst over heroics. But the 2016 Asia Cup will be different, it's not the classic 50-over game but the more unpredictable T20 format, and, without the knockout format, both teams' overall chances, more than just qualifying, hinges on the result. And the players will be aware of just how vital their individual performances will be.
As the two neighbours gear up to battle it out, here are some of the one-on-one player battles we are looking forward to.
Shahid Afridi vs Hardik Pandya
The newest member of the Indian team pitted against the most experienced player in Pakistan may seem like an unfair contest. But the best way to describe this battle between two very flamboyant players is that young Hardik Pandya is the kind of batsman that can take the boom boom to Shahid Afridi. For all his batting exploits, the 35-year old Afridi is in team mainly as a bowler right now and will be looking to unsettle the Indian middle and lower order, where Pandya plans to play his cameo.
Traditionally, Afridi hasn’t done well against India and he will be looking to rectify that record - his T20 bowling average is 46 against India in the six matches he has played, and ir's even worse in ODIs where he averages 60 runs a wicket in 60 innings.
On the other hand, Pandya is a player that attacks from the onset and has the license to go big from Dhoni himself, therefore will look to take the fight to the Pakistan captain from the get-go. It’ll be interesting to see whether the raw hitting of Pandya or the experience of Afridi will come on top.
Virat Kohli vs Wahab Riaz
One can be labelled as the most consistent batsmen in the Indian team and the other the most consistent Pakistani bowler. And both have maintained this tag with their form. Wahab Riaz was the second highest wicket taker overall and highest for Peshawar Zalmi in PSL with 15 wickets in nine games at an average of 16, while Virat Kohli is the second highest Indian run-getter in 2016 with 206 runs in the four T20Is he has played.
But this will be a contest to watch out for, not only for their performance, but because of their passion. Both are aggressive players who don't shy away from showing it on the field. Riaz is an intimidating fast bowler who likes to get under the batsman's skin with more than just the ball. Remember the ferocious (and furious) spell against Shane Watson in the World Cup qualifier against Australia? Even Watson admitted that he was fortunate to escape Riaz's spell.
At the same time, Kohli is not someone to back down from a fight, in fact he is one to take it right back to the opponents, if frequent run-ins with bowlers and incessant sledging of Australia's Mitchell Johnson is any indication. Just as the two players relish such challenges, so will cricket fans relish when these two battle it out in Bangladesh.
Mohammad Amir vs Rohit Sharma
Mohammad Amir may have made a contentious comeback to international cricket but it has been far from ideal. In the three T20Is he played against New Zealand, his first in five years, he managed only one wicket, even though he did get seven wickets in seven matches in the PSL, including a stunning hat-trick. To add to that, it is not a secret that he does not enjoy universal popularity in the Pakistan dressing room, even if Kohli has given him a vote of confidence. Hence, it is vital for him to prove himself at the Asia Cup, and a strong performance against India, to quote a certain team director, would be just what the doctor ordered.
On the other hand, we have Rohit Sharma who has proved himself repeatedly with his match-winning performances. He is 2016's second highest run-getter and India's best T20 batsmen this year with 282 runs, continuing this momentum with a splendid 83 in the Asia Cup opener against Bangladesh. But the Indian opener has a dismal T20I record against Pakistan with only 60 runs in five innings and will want to set this straight. Armed with renewed confidence after the match-winning knock, Rohit will aim at giving the team a solid start, which will include taking on Amir.
It remains to be seem which way will the balance swing: the bowler looking for a fresh start or the batsmen looking to consolidate on his start?
Mohammad Hafeez vs Ashish Nehra
If the 35-year-old Mohammad Hafeez opens the batting for Pakistan, he will face the 36-year-old Ashish Nehra who opens the bowling for India. Both are the golden oldies of their teams, and at their age, should be anomalies in Twenty20 internationals. Yet the battle between the two openers will lay the foundation for the highly hyped India-Pakistan match.
Nehra, incidentally, has never played a T20 match against Pakistan but has done well in the ODIs, starting from the 2003 World Cup right down to the 2011 World Cup, which gives him a more than fair idea of playing India's unpredictable neighbours in pressure situations. Hafeez too has a solid experience of playing India in crucial matches, from the ICC World T20 in 2007 to the 2014 World T20.
If Nehra continues in the same, studious vein as he did against Bangladesh in the opener, he will hope to send Hafeez back to the pavilion as soon as he can. At the same time, Hafeez, who hasn’t done very well in the recently-concluded Pakistan Super League (PSL), will hope to use his experience and play himself to build a solid innings. Captains from both sides will also be banking on the experience of the senior players to get the better of each other. In the end, the battle between the old guard will come down to who blinked first.
Shoaib Malik and Umar Akmal vs Ravi Ashwin
It is a mark of how impactful a player Ravi Ashwin is that he has to be pitted against not one, but two Pakistani batsmen, both who are mainstays of the team's middle order.
MS Dhoni didn't give Ashwin the new ball vs Bangladesh and may not play his lead spinner in the powerplay against their Asian competitors in the sub-continent. But Ashwin will have a huge role to play in the middle overs and maybe even at the death. He has been India's best bowler and Dhoni's go-to guy in the recent past and the second highest wicket-taker in 2016 with 14 wickets in seven match.
But against Pakistan, he will be going up against some of the most seasoned players of spin. Shoaib Malik, for one, has made it a habit of performing against India. Remember his centuries in previous editions of Asia Cup and Champions Trophy? He has had a decent run in the PSL as well, with 157 runs for Karachi Kings.
Umar Akmal, too is both comfortable against spin and has hit his purple patch in the PSL, top scoring the league with 335 runs in seven matches for Lahore Qalandars. He was the highest run-getter for Pakistan in the T20I series against New Zealand as well.
Given the form of all three and the stakes in the match, this battle is sure to spice up the so-called slog overs.