Watch Ayaz Memon (@cricketwallah) preview the India vs Pakistan clash above
If there is one trivia question tougher than 'What is Shahid Afridi's current age', it will be 'When did India and Pakistan last play each other in a T20I?' It will require a bit of head scratching and google research to find out that it was two years ago in Dhaka in the 2014 World T20.
They were scheduled to meet at the fag end of 2015 for a bilateral series which was meant to include ODIs as well as T20Is. One day it was happening, one day it wasn't, and then there were myriad statements released by BCCI and PCB - mostly by PCB - and every time there was hope. And then there wasn't. Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no and finally the much-anticipated series never took place.
This India-Pakistan clash in Asia Cup on Saturday will just be the seventh T20I between the arch-rivals. Talk of the Asia Cup will bring visuals of Shahid Afridi hitting consecutive sixes to clinch a last-over thriller against India in 2014 to send the Pakistan fans into a frenzy at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium. Or perhaps Harbhajan Singh's deafening roar at Shoaib Akhtar that echoed around the Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium after tonking Mohammed Amir into the stands to win another last-over nail-biter in 2010.
India and Pakistan have provided some Asia Cup classics over the years but this time things will be different as we head into a different format.
The two teams haven't met much in T20Is. A lot has changed over the last two years in Pakistan cricket. There will be — as always — a hint of unpredictability about them. Nine members of the current India squad were a part of the last T20 clash compared to just four from Pakistan.
Another thing that has considerably changed is the pitches. Surprisingly, they are no longer high scoring wickets as it used to be. This time juicy wickets are on display and the pacers are making merry on them. 59% of the wickets in this tournament (including the qualifiers, before the Bangladeh vs UAE match) have gone to the pacers. The Sher-e-Bangla Stadium has seen the pacers claim 66% of wickets in this tournament.
Over the years, Pakistan have constantly produced quality fast bowlers and this time too their pace battery looks ominous. The quartet of Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Sami and Mohammad Irfan will pose a big threat to the Indian batsmen. All this takes us to the fact that it will be the battle between Pakistan pacers and the Indian batsmen.
Wahab has come a long way since bursting into the limelight with a five-for against India in 2011 World Cup. He's developed into one of the most fiery bowlers in international cricket. Sami -- who had long lost the faith of the selectors — played his last T20I in May 2015 after making a comeback into the side after three years. He would be looking cement his place again.
It was his Pakistan Super League performance that earned him a place in the squad. He ended up with 12 wickets at an average off 11.50 and played a crucial role in helping Islamabad United clinch the title. He will bring in enormous experience into the fold too.
Mohammad Irfan can ruffle the batsmen with his ability to extract extra bounce.
However, all eyes will be on Mohammad Amir who would look to win back hearts in what could be a high-voltage clash. Aamir didn't get off to best of starts on his comeback, against New Zealand in T20Is but slowly got into the groove with decent performance in the ODIs and then carried on the momentum in the PSL where he got a hat-trick too. Azhar Mahmood joining the Pakistan ranks as their bowling coach will add some spice to the proceedings as well.
For India, top order has been the biggest strength of late and this match will be a test of the mettle for the likes of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli.
Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi has issued a sound warning ahead of the match, "Pace bowlers are the main form of attack in these conditions. We have got four pacers and they are just cricketers who are considered to be wicket-taking. Our fast bowlers will try to utilise the opening six overs by removing their batsmen as that is considered to be their strength," Afridi said at the pre-match press conference.
Rohit Sharma, who has been in form of his life, said that they are not thinking much about Pakistan's four-pronged attack. "Yes, they have a formidable bowling attack but we would want to concentrate more on our strengths and prepare our plans accordingly. Our strength is batting and depending on the wicket we will have to focus on that. Every team has its own specialities. They have good left-arm seamers in their armoury while we have better spinners," he said.
Rohit also said that the focus is not solely on Amir.
"I have played him before but also other bowlers. We are preparing for each individual and not just about one. We have to be well prepared and we are up for the challenge. We are not thinking too far ahead and doing everything possible we can to win games."
One chink in Pakistan's armoury that India can exploit is their weak spin bowling. Saeed Ajmal's ouster and Yasir Shah's ban has sucked the juice out of the spin bowling attack. Afridi has been their go-to man but he hasn't had a good time against India averaging 46 with an economy rate of 8.76 in six T20Is. He will need to step-up big time. Left-arm spinners Imad Wasim and Mohammad Nawaz are inexperienced with the latter yet to play an international match.
This is also a chance for Dhoni and Yuvraj to gain some much-needed confidence in their batting. India's trump card, though, will be its spinners. Pakistan has a good mix of experience and youth in their batting line-up but this will be the stage where Umar Akmal would look to stand up convert his talent into performances. He had a decent T20I series against the Kiwis and ended up as the highest run-scorer in the PSL. He would look to continue the momentum and achieve consistency.
Pakistan are fresh from the successful PSL, but their form in T20Is has been awful recently. They lost the 'home series' to England 3-0 and were outplayed in New Zealand 2-1. Meanwhile India have warmed up for this match with a comprehensive win over Bangladesh - their sixth win in seven matches. India have been the dominant side among the two in the shortest format having won four of the six matches with one lost and one ending in a tie.
But the unpredictability of Pakistan can't be taken lightly. This is a pre-cursor to the World T20 clash in Dharamsala and it could well be decided on how the Indian batsmen handle the Pakistan pace battery.
First Published On : Feb 27, 2016 16:34 IST