Technically, it is an inconsequential match. Thanks to Rohit Sharma and Co’s hard-earned 26-run triumph over Hong Kong, both India and Pakistan are through to the next round now. Hence, irrespective of Wednesday’s result, India will remain on top of Group A and will play all their remaining matches in this Asia Cup in Dubai.
But can any India-Pakistan clash be insignificant ever? Not really.
Whether the organisers or the captains of the other four teams agree or not, the flavour of this Asia Cup are the two, possibly three India-Pakistan, encounters. The entire branding and marketing strategy of this tournament is based on these three matches. After all both teams are taking on each other in this part of the world after 12 years and once the UAE used to be the hub of India-Pakistan rivalry. So, on Wednesday, there will be no shortage of intensity, neither from the sold-out crowd, nor from the under-pressure players of both teams.
Pakistan: No longer underdogs
Due to political reasons, these days India and Pakistan only play each other in multi-team events and in those encounters, the ‘Men in Blue’ have had the upper-hand. But the Champions’ Trophy final last year had changed the entire complexion of this rivalry. The way Sarfraz Ahmed’s team outplayed India on that day, it showed that gone are those days when a Pakistan team used to lose the battle of nerves while taking on their arch-rivals. They are no longer underdogs. This team can not only be competitive, they can dominate as well.
Following the triumph in the Champions Trophy, this team has performed exceptionally well under the inspirational leadership of Sarfraz. Most importantly, there is stability in this Pakistan side. The captain and the team management have given players long runs, which has allowed youngsters like Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam, Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali etc to blossom at the international level.
Nevertheless, going into this high-profile clash, bowling will be Pakistan’s strength. There is variety and depth in their bowling, which is perfectly suited for these slow tracks. Along with their much-talked-about left-arm seam brigade, there is also the wrist-spin of Shadab as well as a couple of right-arm pacers, Hasan and Faheem Ashraf. If needed, veteran Shoaib Malik can also chip in with his off-spin, so can Zaman with his left-arm orthodox.
And most importantly, all these players play a lot of cricket in these conditions. So, they know how exactly they should go about their business here.
Interestingly, in the Pakistan cricket fraternity there are talks of playing Junaid Khan ahead of the out-of-form Mohammad Amir. However, in his pre-match press conference the way Sarfraz defended his premier fast bowler, the change seems highly unlikely. Meanwhile, all eyes will be on young left-arm pacer Usman Khan, who bowled with a lot of fire against Hong Kong and took three for 19.
This Virat Kohli-less Indian batting has potential, but it is vulnerable against quality bowling. Pakistan certainly know that and would like expose this weakness.
When it comes to batting, Pakistan are expected to play the same line-up which took field against Hong Kong. There is a perfect blend of youth and experience in their batting. Their top five batsmen — Fakhar, Imam Ul Haq, Babar, Shoaib and Sarfraz — have done fairly well off late. So, with confidence and form on their side, this batting line-up can put the rusty Indian bowling attack under some serious pressure.
Expected XI: Fakhar Zaman, Imam Ul Haq, Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik, Sarfraz Ahmed (C & WK), Asif Ali, Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf, Usman Khan, Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali.
India need to plug the holes
The Hong Kong match has been a huge learning curve for the bowlers. Allowing them to cross 250 on that pitch was a highly disappointing performance by the defending champions. Chasing 286 to win, when both Hong Kong openers were having that 174-run stand, it seemed we were heading towards a huge upset. However, the late burst by debutant Khaleel Ahmed and inexperience in the opposition batting somehow saved the day for India.
With the new ball, Indian bowlers didn’t hit the in-between length often. Instead, they were either too full or too short. Coming back from injury, Bhuvneshwar Kumar looked rusty. Whereas Shardul Thakur, who leaked 41 runs in four overs, had a forgetful outing. Even with the new ball in hand, Khaleel did not have much impact.
Against Pakistan, Jasprit Bumrah should replace Shardul whereas the team management may opt for an all-rounder in the form of Hardik Pandya, instead of the young Khaleel.
The two wrist-spinners, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, will have their task cut out following the average outing against Hong Kong. On these slow surfaces, they should bowl much fuller and allow the batsmen to come to their front-foot, unlike what they had done on Tuesday.
In the batting department, the team will look towards skipper Rohit and the centurion against Hong Kong, Shikhar Dhawan, to provide a solid beginning. Since the last 50-over World Cup, the batsmanship of top-three batsmen has been the biggest strength of this Indian team. But in the absence of Kohli, there will be extra responsibility on the openers to shield their inexperienced middle-order.
At No 4, the musical chairs are likely to continue as India may opt to play KL Rahul ahead of Dinesh Karthik, who did not make a significant contribution against Hong Kong. The rest of the batting will remain the same.
Against Hong Kong, India managed only 48 runs in the last 10 overs. So, there is a scope for improvement in this aspect. However, if Pandya plays, there will be an added strength in this lower middle-order. However for India, the contribution of MS Dhoni with the bat will be very important as he needs to play a more significant role towards the death overs.
Overall, India’s biggest challenge in this game is taking the hassle of playing back-to-back matches under these extreme conditions. They had to earn their victory against Hong Kong and within next 15-16 hours, the players will be back in action. Indeed, under these conditions, it is a tough ask.
Expected XI: Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma (C), Ambati Rayudu, KL Rahul, MS Dhoni (WK), Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah.
The toss is once again going to be a crucial factor in this match. Both teams have quality bowling attacks, so chasing won’t be easy. So far, mostly batting first has been the theme of this Asia Cup and there is no reason that it will change on Wednesday.
Match starts: 3.30 pm (local time), 5.00 pm (IST)
Venue: Dubai International Cricket Stadium