The most sought-after megastars of the current generation are primed to show their might against a bunch of enigmatic cricketers as India and Pakistan engage in an ICC T20 World Cup face-off, something that transcends the 22-yard strip.
The sensitive nature of the cross-border relationship between the neighbours has led to minimal sporting engagements and cricket has always become the vehicle of one-upmanship for the fans on both sides.
In terms of numbers, India have an all-win record against their arch-rivals in the T20 World Cup since its inception in 2007. Incidentally, all the matches were won under the one and only Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who will be there on skipper Virat Kohli‘s ears with his ‘diamond crusted info-nuggets’, which might lead to Babar Azam tearing a hair or two in exasperation.
Yet, this is a match that everyone awaits in the global event — the fans because of its novelty factor, the ICC and the broadcasters for filling up the coffers. Everyone is invested be it emotionally, like the fans, or materially, like the other stakeholders.
Be it Sunil Gavaskar or Sourav Ganguly, everyone who understands the game would tell you that this is the one format where the margins are thinnest and qualitative difference matters the least, as anyone performer can win it for his side on a given day.
It could be Kohli, who would love to get over his mediocre run of form in a match that always carries a posterity value or Shaheen Shah Afridi could tail one into KL Rahul‘s pads first up to set it up for Pakistan.
It could be Mohammed Rizwan, who might just launch into Mohammed Shami or it could be Suryakumar Yadav, who could play a reverse flick off Hasan Ali. The players may say that it’s just “another game of cricket” but even they know that in this day and age of retro videos and offensive memes, a not-so-great performance stays forever.
No one knows it better than current chairman of selectors Chetan Sharma, who is carrying the cross of a last ball six off Javed Miandad for the past 35 years. But cricket has changed since those heady days of Sharjah and India, with its robust structure and talent factory, has produced world-class performers by the dozens.
The Virat Kohlis, the Rohit Sharms and the Jasprit Bumrahs don’t carry any baggage despite the blip in the 2017 Champions Trophy final.
On Sunday, the Pakistanis will have a lot more to prove than their Indian counterparts.
For the likes of Shah, Rizwan, Harris Rauf and their uber cool captain Babar, it will not just be about breaking a World Cup jinx against a world-class side. It is also about how global cricket perceives Pakistan which saw two of the cricketing elites England and New Zealand close ranks and refuse to tour the country.
Over the years, Pakistan cricket have faced an existential crisis and a good game against India will certainly give them some breathing space.
But it will be easier said than done against an Indian side whose players are coming into the tournament with a heavy dose of IPL games in the UAE, which is Pakistan’s adopted home.
For India, their strength is a crack top-five that comprises Rohit, Rahul, Kohli, Suryakumar and Rishabh Pant. Here is a line-up that can send a chill down the spine of Afridi, Rauf, Hasan, Imad Wasim and Shadab Khan, who are going to form the core of their bowling attack.
India’s problem is going to be a long tail and the absence of a sixth bowler if Hardik Pandya is played purely as a batter. But if one believes in the MSD template of T20 cricket, this format is all about handling the pressure and if 20 is required off 10 balls, Pandya is still a better bet than a greenhorn like Ishan Kishan, who is supposedly in better form.
The bowling department will depend on which side of the track they are playing as Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja, Shami and Varun Chakravarthy pick themselves. Bhuvneshwar Kumar‘s experience holds him in good stead and he has better variations than Shardul Thakur, who despite a knack of getting wickets, can go for runs.
If there’s an extra spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, with his great game awareness, could be more effective than Rahul Chahar, but the Indian team management can throw in a surprise or two.
For Pakistan, their two main players will be skipper Babar, an all-format superstar and someone who is destined to be one of the modern day greats. He will require support from Shaheen with the new ball as Hasan and Rauf could go for runs against India.
Left-arm spinner Imad has had a great record in UAE for Pakistan and how he varies his pace in the power play and middle-overs against the likes of Pant and Surya will also define how they fare.
Similarly, the two old men in Shoaib Malik and Mohammed Hafeez will be keen to settle scores with India. On paper, it looks unlikely but T20 is a different beast.
Teams (from) India: Virat Kohli (captain), Rohit Sharma (vc), KL Rahul, Suryakumar Yadav, Rishabh Pant (wk), Hardik Pandya, Ishan Kishan, Shardul Thakur, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Varun Chakravarthy, Rahul Chahar
Pakistan (Playing XI): Babar Azam (captain), Mohammed Rizwan, Fakhar Zaman, Mohammed Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, Asif Ali, Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Harris Rauf, Hasan Ali, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haider Ali.
Match starts: 7:30 pm IST.