This article was first published on ThirdManCricket.com
For a long time growing up, we didn’t know any Pakistanis. How could we? We grew up in Bombay, that most Indian of cities. We grew up in Mumbai, that most anti-Pakistani of cities. We didn’t know anything about their culture. We thought they were different, perhaps from another planet? They had big, tall fast bowlers and batsmen who could change the face of the game within a few overs. We had Ventakesh and Raju. But we also had Sachin, our saviour, our only hope. Then came that unforgettable moment of madness when Aamer Sohail lost his cool, changing the face of India-Pakistan contests.
Prior to the 1996 game, Pakistan had dominated India for a long time. Yes, India had beaten them in an inconsequential game in the 1992 World Cup (which Pakistan went on to win), but Pakistan always had the upper edge. With Sachin’s arrival, came a new India, a bolder India that was ready to stand up to the world. It took time for his influence to spread to the rest of the team. Not till the turn of the century did India start dominating Pakistan in what has become an expected result, particularly in World Cups.
India’s team lacked heart in the nineties. Perhaps that is what Pakistan’s team lacked in the 2000s. Which brings me to the point of my article: this match has always been about which team has more heart. In sport, you can get caught up in numbers and statistics and past performances, but little does that matter in this contest. It is all about who wants it more. That’s what makes this contest beautiful. It is passion personified. It can make or break careers. In 1996 after Pakistan lost, we heard that every Pakistani broke their TV in protest. How could they lose to India?
And yet, as the countries have developed their own national identities post-partition, the two countries unite in what is the mother of all contests. As I’ve grown to become friends with several Pakistanis in New York, I’ve come to realize that little differentiates us. There are those you get along with more, and others who seem to always get on your nerve. There are those who love politics, others who love Bollywood. There are Uncles and Aunties, chai and samosas and biryanis, extravagant weddings, political discussions till the wee hours of the morning, in both cultures.
On to the business end of my article then: both teams look evenly matched in a poor sort of way. But don’t discount either side when they cross the boundary line at the Adelaide Oval, the home of the Don. Historically a batting wicket which assists the spinners late in test matches (look no further than Nathan Lyon’s seven-wicket haul against India this past December), the Adelaide Oval should provide the perfect platform for an India-Pakistan run-fest. If India’s practice games are anything to go by, batting first and posting a big total will be the plan for both sides.
India need Kohli to fire. After a big test series against Australia in which he scored four hundreds, he has struggled to get going in the One Dayers. Ominous signs for Pakistan could be found in Kohli’s brief innings against Australia in the practice game where he looked at complete ease against Australia’s frontline seam attack of Johnson, Hazelwood and Starc. His biggest flaw will be learning to control that “fend” outside the off-stump. How often has he got out caught behind or in the slips looking to run the ball down to third man? Similarly, Rohit Sharma will be critical for India but must not get carried away playing the big shots too early. We’ve seen how big he can score when he concentrates. Jinxy Rahane, too, looks to be in sublime touch, and two of those three will need to make big scores to set the platform for the likes of Dhoni, Raina and Jadeja to cash in during the final overs for India on Sunday.
For Pakistan, they will be missing Hafeez’s all-round capabilities. He adds so much to their side in my opinion. He’s a calming influence at the top, and is one of their only openers in recent times who has shown the appetite to build an innings, not to mention has the canny ability to pick up crucial wickets either opening the bowling or in the middle overs. Their top order has to make sure that their mainstays Misbah and Younis, and then Afridi at the death, are not brought into play too early into the innings. If any of these players get going, India could be in trouble with its mercurial bowling attack. To Ahmed Shahzad and Sarfaraz Ahmed, the Indian bowlers will have to bowl tight lines to tie them down and frustrate them so that they play unnatural shots. Younis Khan tends to tie himself down, so a similar tactic might work against him. Umar Akmal tends to attempt to over-dominate the spinners, so it might not be a bad tactic giving Ashwin the ball against him. With Afridi it’s a game of luck, and with Misbah, well, Misbah creates his own luck, doesn’t he?
Pakistan’s bowling attack will be severely missing both Ajmal and Junaid Khan, their two main weapons. Without them, India will likely breathe easy and attack the likes of Irfan, Wahab Riaz and Ehsan Adil, not to mention Afridi himself. India’s biggest weakness could be their biggest strength as well: their tendency to over attack when they bat. They need to be careful not to over-attack the Pakistani bowlers as doing so could put them in a spot of bother if they lose a few quick wickets early on. What India really lacks is a number 5 batsmen who can hold the innings together should a few early wickets fall, the role Yuvraj played in the last World Cup. With Raina coming at five, one doesn’t have as much confidence in his ability to score a match-saving 80 or hundred from a position of 50/3.
Similarly, India’s bowling will worry them after an indifferent series against Australia and England. Personally, I think India should go in with their five best bowlers based on experience, and the conditions. My three fast bowlers would be Umesh Yadav, Mohit Sharma and Mohammad Shami. Given their experience, I would go in with Jadeja and Ashwin as the two spinners. Jadeja gets the nod for his superior finishing abilities with the bat, whereas Ashwin’s experience and the variation he brings with being an off-spinner (as opposed to Axar Patel, the other left-arm orthodox bowler), wins him my vote. Batting-wise, Dhawan has shown some form of late, and will partner Rohit at the top of the order. Kohli should bat at 3, followed by Rahane, Raina and Dhoni. That number 5 spot could well hurt India in the World Cup; while Jadeja has been developed in to a reliable number 7, Raina hasn’t made the jump from 7 (where he batted in the last World Cup) to 5 (where he will be batting in this World Cup) successfully.
In the final analysis, there may be no analysis that accurately predicts the outcome of this match. It is always about the heart, and my heart will be with India. I wish I could’ve been there with the rest of the Swami Army boys in Adelaide, but I will be eagerly watching on in New York, hoping for India’s progress through the tournament.
Nothing ties India together like Cricket. Not politics, not food, not Bollywood, not any other aspect of culture. Cricket is the language of my country. I trust it is the same for Pakistanis as well. On Sunday, February 15th, I will be watching every moment of the game as if my life depended on it. I trust there will be 2 billion others doing the same. It will be the most watched cricket match in history. May the best team win.
Nikhil Puri is the co-founder of Third Man Cricket. For more information on Nikhil, read below:
Who am I? Well quite simply obsessed with cricket! That’s right, from the moment I started following the sport nothing else mattered, seriously! My all time favorite moment was April 2nd, 2011, at 10:47pm IST, when MS Dhoni played a stroke that was the defining moment for people of my generation, lofting Nuwan Kulasekera over long on to win India the World Cup after 28 long years. All through my childhood, spent in India and New Zealand, and then in the U.S. and the U.K., I longed for such a moment. Along the way, I’ve played a shitload of cricket too, to a pretty decent standard back in NZ and now ply my trade for the Maddogs of New York!
This quote from Steve Waugh, in his autobiography “Out of My Comfort Zone” sums me up:
“I was born with cricket in my blood and I’ll die that way. I’m sure of that, because even today, each time I drive past an oval and notice a game in progress, I’ll slow down to make certain I see the bowler deliver the ball with enthusiastic anticipation to a batsman who has equally ambitious aspirations, as the fielders hover with intent. There’s nothing like it, the excitement of the unknown. Once it seduces you, you’re hooked for life.”