The game that gets more eyeballs than possibly any other single event across the globe — sporting or otherwise — is here with its seventh installation.
India and Pakistan lock horns in an ICC World Cup 2019 clash at Manchester that was sold out within minutes of tickets going on sale, nearly a year prior to the World Cup.
It is a contest that holds one of India’s proudest streaks in international cricket; the six-to-nothing scoreline is fabled in Indian cricket, despite the fact that the more recent of these wins have come against a Pakistan side that has fallen well behind the pace of the one-day game.
Still, it was this very side that produced one of the most stunning upsets in modern-day cricket just two years ago, annihilating then-No 1 India in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, also in England — a tournament that Pakistan had entered as the lowest-ranked side in the field.
Upon the architects of that unexpected triumph will Pakistan rest their hopes of ending their woeful World Cup drought against their arch-rivals; Virat Kohli’s India, meanwhile, will hope to have learned the lessons from that shock mauling at The Oval in June 2017.
Here’s a pick of the battles that are most likely to define the outcome of the India-Pakistan rubber at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul vs Mohammad Amir
India’s reworked opening combination did not get its first run in the middle owing to the Nottingham rain on Thursday, but while they avoided the Trent Boult test, Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul now face the prospect of another lethal left-arm seamer who has more than rediscovered his mojo.
Mohammad Amir’s 5/30 against Australia was an exceptional achievement, whichever way you choose to look at it: in 52 previous ODI spells, Amir had never taken five wickets and only once taken four, that too in his previous life as a cricketer in 2009; Amir had picked up a total of five wickets in his last 14 ODIs ahead of the World Cup, a drought that had existed since the start of 2018; remove Amir’s contribution at Taunton, and the Australian scorecard read a marauding 277/5 from 39 overs.
Oh, and you remember what he did the last time he met Sunday’s opponents on English soil, right?
Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli made a combined total of 900 runs in five matches during the 2017 Champions Trophy. A mere 26 of those runs came in the summit clash, and all three fell to the same bowler, inside the opening nine overs of their mammoth 339-run chase.
An in-form, new-ball hurling Amir is a beast for the best to conquer; Rohit, despite his world-leading numbers from the top, has fallen thrice in 69 balls across ODIs and T20Is to Amir, while only scoring at 3.39 runs per over.
Rahul is yet to play against Pakistan in any format, but his record against pedigreed opponents while batting at the top of the order leaves a lot of room for improvement. Rahul averages 128 in four innings in the top-three in ODIs against Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, but in five matches against Australia, England, and Sri Lanka, that average plummets catastrophically to 10.80.
Virat Kohli vs Wahab Riaz
Virat Kohli won’t have really fond memories of the first time he squared up to (or was squared up by, rather) Wahab Riaz.
It was the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup, and Sachin Tendulkar, despite leading the most charmed life he ever did on the 22-yard strip, was carrying India to a competitive total. Kohli’s attempt to give his idol some company proved futile, as he pushed and prodded five Wahab deliveries for two runs before being squared up by the sixth.
Ever since, though, the match-up has been turned on its head. In four subsequent ODI meetings with Wahab over the past seven years, Kohli has smashed 87 runs from 66 balls — without being dismissed.
He was particularly severe the last time they locked horns, in the 2017 Champions Trophy game which did go India’s way, in the group stage at Edgbaston, taking Wahab for 21 runs from just 10 balls, which included a delightful whipped six over long-on.
Which Wahab turns up will have a huge bearing on this one-on-one; will it be the one who tripped England’s power-hitters with his reverse swing, or the one who wasn’t deemed fit to even complete his quota against Australia more recently?
For Pakistan to keep the Indian captain quiet, God knows they need the former.
Fakhar Zaman vs Bhuvneshwar Kumar
Yes, before you say it, I know. There was immense temptation to pit the Pakistan opener against the other member of the Indian new-ball attack.
Because who in the world knows what would have been had it not been for Jasprit Bumrah overstepping with the first ball of his second over in that 2017 title bout at The Oval, with Zaman on three? But Bumrah did cross the line, and Zaman did make India pay the price for it with a sumptuous hundred.
Despite his heroics on the day, the left-handed dasher actually has a rather conservative record against India’s pace-bowling duo, having taken 28 runs off the two at a strike rate below 45.
And more than Bumrah, it is Bhuvneshwar Kumar who has kept a firm lid on Zaman in the limited sample space of three matches.
Zaman has faced 36 balls, or six new-ball overs, from Kumar, and mustered a mere 12 runs, while being dismissed once.
It has been a docile start to the World Cup so far for the former Pakistan navy officer. He will hope for the past morale against India to provide a boost, while knowing that he’s unlikely to receive any freebie like last time.
Babar Azam vs Jasprit Bumrah
Bumrah’s more-anticipated tussle, at least in the view of this writer, lies in the man who comes at one-down for Pakistan: Babar Azam.
Beyond the theatrics of the Zaman-Bumrah reunion, this is the match-up that provides the most compelling narrative too; India’s – and the world’s – best bowler against possibly Pakistan’s only truly world-class batsman as things stand.
Bumrah has kept Azam quiet in their brief forays from the recent past, conceding only 12 runs off 22 balls. But that’s down to the Pakistan number three’s sensibilities, and know-how of which opposition bowlers to respect and which ones to go after.
Of all the 10 Pakistan wickets up for grabs at this World Cup, none comes with a greater price-tag on it than Azam’s, which is what made his ugly attempt at a hook against Australia so uncharacteristically out-of-place.
But before giving it away, Azam had been a picture of poetry in caressing seven of the most delectable boundaries you will see this English summer in his 28-ball 30, and if he can blend that silken touch with his usual tactical soundness, his will be the wicket Bumrah will set out for more than any other.
Pakistan’s Old Guard vs India’s Young Wristies
There are two men in the Indian squad this World Cup who owe their sudden elevation into international cricket to their opponents on Sunday.
In that aforementioned Champions Trophy final, the reputations of two of India’s finest spinners of the past decade took an almost-permanent beating. Between them, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja bowled 18 wicketless overs for 137 runs; Ashwin’s ODI career, as things stand, only lasted a month beyond that final, while Jadeja’s return after more than a year out was down more to his all-round abilities.
More than anything else, the ridiculous negation of his finger-spinners is what turned Kohli to the more-accepted-by-the-rest-of-the-world wrist-spinners — and that is what propelled Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav into the big leagues.
Their challenge is to do what their predecessors couldn’t, against a seasoned core which relishes a face-off against spin: Mohammad Hafeez and Sarfaraz Ahmed are the middle-order marshalls, and generally much more secure facing spin than pace; Shoaib Malik is yet to get out to Chahal and Kuldeep in 67 balls he’s faced off the duo; Azam, meanwhile, has had only 13 of his 56 ODI dismissals to spin.
Historically speaking, Pakistan have been the toughest challenge for Indian spinners. Keeping a minimum qualification of five innings, only three Indian spin bowlers (out of 13) average under 30 against the arch-rivals.
Chahal and Kuldeep, in a brief but boisterous climb up the international cricket ladder, have been rewriting a fair amount of history; Sunday provides another chance at continuing their rapid ascent.