And so, it’s that time again. For the millions of fans of Indian and Pakistan cricket, the next few weeks will mark a unique period of time where the subject of cricket will consume each and every conversation at work, school, and across dinner tables; when social media and online forums will have only one topic to discuss – the upcoming India versus Pakistan clash at Birmingham in the ICC Champions Trophy on 4 June. The arch-rivals are set to renew what is possibly the greatest sporting rivalry on the planet.
But the lead-up to this game has not been without its fair share of drama. The "will they, or won’t they" participate in the Champions Trophy debate for the India team has thankfully been resolved, with a positive result for the fans of cricket. Pakistan, on the other hand, have had a slightly more uneventful journey towards this ICC mega event. That is unless you discount the recent furore regarding spot-fixing allegations which, thankfully, has not affected any member of the Champions Trophy squad.
As always though, there is some needle. This time, it is the PCB’s demand for compensation from the BCCI for their failure to play a bilateral series and whilst some to and fro is expected on this matter, before the first ball is bowled in Birmingham, by and large, the game of cricket and its possible result that day should be the main topic of discussion going forward.
If history is any guide, the Men in Blue should be the more confident side going into this tournament. As holders of the title, by dint of their victory in 2013, the Indian team will be looked upon as clear favourites given their superb and rather embarrassing (for Pakistanis) record where they hold an 11-0 win superiority against Pakistan in the 50 and 20 over versions of ICC’s World Cup competitions. But the record in Champions Trophy tournaments is better for Pakistan, where they have won twice and lost once to their arch rivals.
As is customary for such high-profile encounters, whilst being slightly cautious, no side will be backing down in the pre-game build-up. Pakistan's chief selector, Inzamam-ul-Haq, has opened his side’s account with his remarks stating that, "We don’t have a great record against India in major events but every day is a new day". Not to be left far behind, Sourav Ganguly fired India's opening salvo stating that the difference in quality between both sides pretty much guarantees an Indian victory.
But words are cheap and as we all know, no India-Pakistan encounter can ever be taken easily by any of the sides, for danger of embarrassment and public humiliation. So, can the denizens of Birmingham and the millions watching on their television sets expect a blockbuster on 4 June and do the Pakistan team – currently rated eighth in ODI rankings – have the wherewithal to mount a serious challenge to the current champions?
It would be a fair assessment to say that the choice of personnel for Pakistan's 15-man squad bound for the Champions Trophy has not met with universal acclaim. The choice of former ODI captain Azhar Ali has resulted in some amount of ridicule being heaped on the selectors as has the re-emergence of Ahmed Shehzad and Umar Akmal.
Whilst Shoaib Malik remains a sensible choice due to his new-found confidence, Mohammad Hafeez has also been enjoying a period of renaissance which will please Pakistan fans. In a sense, the tried-and-tested brigade represents the answer to call of including "experience" in the Pakistan squad, which the selectors have succumbed to. But the real excitement for Pakistan supporters is in the youth section.
In Imad Wasim, Pakistan have a more than an able all-rounder who has the ability to take the game to the opposition in more ways than one; whilst Shadab Khan, fresh from his success in the limited-overs series against the West Indies is also one to watch, as his debut series yielded a total of 15 wickets in seven games; Hasan Ali, with his brilliant array of slower deliveries, can put a dent in any batting line-up; and a fired-up Mohammad Amir could prove to be a match-winner for Pakistan. Whilst the bowling has never really been a problem for Pakistan, it is also heartening to see that the batting seems to have enough teeth now to challenge a confident Indian bowling line-up.
If Pakistan are to go head-to-head with a rampant Indian batting line-up, it will be the likes of Babar Azam, with a fantastic run in ODIs with 1322 runs and five centuries to his name, who will be the standard-bearer for their team.
Fakhar Zaman may be a name not known to many outside Pakistan but anyone watching the recently concluded Pakistan One-Day Cup would have seen the excellence in his batting, which led his team Balochistan to lift the domestic trophy.
The weight of history, where India has traditionally ruled the roost in ICC competitions, could well put a reverse pressure on the current title holders. Regardless of any pressure, the fact is that the Indian batting line-up reads like the who’s who of world cricket, boasting of names like Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Yuvraj Singh. It will take a performance of some grit to defy the odds if Pakistan are to win in the Midlands.
What Pakistan do have now, and which could have been lacking in previous years, is a captain in the shape of Sarfraz Ahmed who is no stranger to courage and possesses a distinct never-say-die-attitude. He leads from the front with an iron will and determination and as his current stellar record in ODIs seems to suggest, his team responds with the same enthusiasm.
Pakistan know that they will have their toughest game when they step onto the field in Edgbaston but they will do so confident in the knowledge that they have the ability to fight fire with fire. Whilst Ganguly’s optimism bordering on arrogance and his analysis of the record books may have some merit, he and India will be well-advised to not underestimate the resolve in Sarfraz’s team. As previous opponents have found out over the years, writing off a dangerous opponent like Pakistan can play into their hands.
Updated Date: May 29, 2017 14:48 PM