This 2019 World Cup is one to remember. You probably will want to stop reading further in a huff — four matches washed out thus far, rain topping the charts with eight points, etc. Social media is rife with complaints against the International Cricket Council and the ECB, with arguments about match scheduling and lack of enough covers at the grounds. This all could have been prevented, some say.
Indeed, all of us will remember this as the wettest World Cup in ODI history. All it takes, however, is one moment to change that perception. Perhaps that particular moment will come about on Sunday when the English rain gods decide against visiting Manchester. Maybe, they will just make a fleeting visit, scaring us all, before an expected viewership of 1.5 billion gets what it desperately wants — an explosive India versus Pakistan game to light up what is turning out to be a damp squib of a tournament.
Rain occupied centrestage on the pre-match day then, of course. How could it not? It started raining just as India finished their net session, while Pakistan were forced indoor to train ahead of an all-important game. Skipper Virat Kohli went as far as to say that rain will impact how he picks the playing eleven — a shortened game, or too pace-friendly conditions, might force him to be adventurous with his planning (read Mohammed Shami).
Undoubtedly, Pakistan will be hoping for a shortened game, for that is when they are at their best. As the world’s number one ranked T20 side, they will be more than a handful for India, who, arguably, aren’t the best shortest-form outfit at present. In fact, in T20 cricket, they struggle to find an identity, often trying to replicate what works for them in ODIs. For both sides, this game presents an unbalanced equation, thus.
Perhaps no one knows it better than Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur. How many times have we seen him sitting on dressing room balconies, frustrated, just about to pull his hair out at the unpredictability his wards exhibit? In his heart, he knew this about Pakistan cricket when he took on the job, and yet he tries ever harder, trying to bring their three facets of the game working together on any given day. It is the toughest job in the world of sport, period.
Arthur’s glorious moment in this job came when Pakistan beat India in the 2017 Champions Trophy final. That game will have a lot of bearing on Sunday, no two ways about it. For starters, Arthur will remind his wards about it considering they are going into this match as underdogs. Tables can be turned, ought to be his message, as they have been in the past. As coach, he searches for the perfect outing for his side and it doesn’t get any better than scoring 300-plus, then scuttling out your arch rivals, that too in the final.
While Pakistan will seek to find new heroes, India will breathe hard in their own dressing room. They know a repeat of Champions Trophy final could happen — all the chatter stops outside the boundary ropes, no equations, no past records, nothing else matters, and Kohli — as captain — only realised it all too well in 2017.
Kohli also knows Mohammad Amir too well. Often, he has sung praises of the villain-turned-hero pacer and indeed welcomed him back openly into the international fold. Then, there is also the memory of losing their entire top-order to him in that Champions Trophy final. It is India’s one weakness, exploited well by Pakistan when it mattered most, and history could repeat itself particularly as Shikhar Dhawan is missing.
Yes, Dhawan was there in that final. No, Dhawan couldn’t stop Amir back then, and in his current form (Amir, not Dhawan), he probably wouldn’t have stopped the pacer now. The underlying point, however, is about India’s restructured top-order, and not about Dhawan’s shortcoming against the moving ball. KL Rahul would have opened the batting in Nottingham; Vijay Shankar would have batted at number four at Trent Bridge. Instead, rain prevailed and they come into this game, still raw. It is not the ideal situation to be in.
In an ordinary scenario, India won’t think too much about the game beyond planning for the opposition. They wouldn’t budge from the standard line of thinking out their strategy and executing it as well as they can. They won’t pick a side that is imbalanced (three pacers).
The question to ask here is if they are looking at it as an ordinary game.
Kohli tried too hard in the pre-match conference downplaying the impact of this game, or that of Amir. He spent the better part of his sermon, preaching about the importance of doing what they do best. It is a statement heard before, in every press conference to be precise, but not every pre-match day is about India versus Pakistan in a World Cup game. Compare that to Arthur’s demeanour, and he was enjoying the occasion more, accepting that anything is possible in such an encounter.
Devoid of hiccups, India are pretty certain about their plans. Perhaps Pakistan are too, or perhaps not. They didn’t play a full-time spinner against Australia, and relied on their old hands. Will they continue with the same ploy? They worry about the middle order wherein Shoaib Malik hasn’t come to the party yet. They rely too heavily on Babar Azam, who has declared that he watches Kohli’s videos to learn from him. Will the Indian skipper provide a free, live tutorial on Sunday?
Kohli or Amir, Dhoni or Malik, Azam or Bumrah — it will take one moment of inspiration or magic to turn this game on its head. As Arthur put it, this rivalry will be looking for a new hero on Sunday. India-Pakistan is a rivalry that transcends names, situations, or numbers. Pakistan have won 73 ODIs and lost 54 to India. They are 6-0 down when it comes to World Cups.
This contest can only bow down to rain. Hopefully, the clouds will stay away.