Preview: India vs Pakistan, SF-2

March 30, 2011

There are blockbusters and there are blockbusters. An India-Pakistan match in normal circumstances qualifies as one. But when it’s in the semi-finals of a World Cup that is held in the sub-continent; that is the most watched in history – then it’s somewhat bland to describe the match as simply a blockbuster. We’ll search for the appropriate words later.

There is no point in saying that this is ‘just another match’ and the players and fans ought to treat it as such. The fans will never treat it as such, which in turn means the players will never be allowed to treat it as such. It will be about India’s batting versus Pakistan’s bowling – and it will also be about India’s bowling versus Pakistan’s batting – but more than anything else, it will be about who handles the pressure better.

New Zealand showed that application and commitment, when allied with pressure, do strange things. South Africa were felled, and Sri Lanka were given the jitters. If a team that is so much shorter on raw ability than India or Pakistan can induce such panic, there is no telling what a choke applied by a more skillful set of players would do.

Batting vs Bowling

In the build up of India’s batsmen and Pakistan’s bowlers, one equally important battle has been overlooked: that between India’s bowlers and Pakistan’s batsmen. (Both sets of fielders are equally good/bad on most days). Pakistan’s batting line-up revolves largely around Umar Akmal and Misbah ul Haq, and while those two have been good, they haven’t yet been spectacular. India’s bowling often seems to start and end with Zaheer Khan. Zaheer has been spectacular, but none of the others have given the impression that they could turn the match on their own. The Indian batting vs Pakistan bowling will be a battle to see who is stronger. The Indian bowling vs Pakistan batting will be one to see who is less weak. In a crunch match such as this, the second battle is as important as the first one. [A detailed and more in-depth look at the numbers of the Indian and Pakistani players has been provided in this analysis.]

The first battle will rely heavily on the respective starters. Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag versus Umar Gul and Shoaib Akhtar – who Pakistan should include given his love of the big stage and proven ability to perform – will be a mouth-watering clash. Even more, it will be a clash whose outcome will give the side that wins it a huge advantage. Just like India can point at a deep batting line-up that can still threaten in case the openers fail, so too can Pakistan point to a varied and penetrating bowling attack, that can still strike if the opening bowlers fail.

The Game Changers:

Whatever be the outcome of this match, one thing is fairly certain: If Pakistan win, Shahid Afridi will go on to get the Man of the Series award, and if India win, Yuvraj Singh will collect the honours. Both perform symmetrically opposite roles for their teams – they are their team’s go-to men in the middle overs for batting and bowling respectively. Both have brought a second skill to the table and been very successful at it too: Yuvraj with his bowling and Afridi with his captaincy. Yuvraj may not be the best purveyor of flight and loop, just as Afridi may not be the most tactically astute captain – but Yuvraj has cunning, the ability to deceive and discipline, while Afridi has the ability to unite a team famous for quarreling among themselves often more than with the opposition. Both have looked like men on a mission in this tournament. The steely-eyed determination is visible in Yuvraj everytime he has walked out and bailed the team out of a tight situation, and Afridi’s fierce desire to win is on display everytime Pakistan have played.

They are running neck-and-neck with each other in the performance stakes. One of them will pull away at Mohali.

The Conditions:

There was considerable flutter after heavy overnight rains in Chandigarh and Mohali, but all weather reports have predicted a sunny day on 30th March. The pitch is very much a bat-first wicket, though dew is a considration. However, the ground staff will use chemicals to keep the outfield dry. Moreover, if there is cloud cover, the chances of dew are supposed to decrease, while lending the ball additional zip in the latter half of the day. The conditions definitely point to the side winning the toss batting first. What both teams must tell themselves though, is that winning the World Cup requires a team to be able to beat both opponents and odds – and that the match, or even the advantage is not lost if the toss is lost.

The Teams:

The rains are likely to have caused last-minute changes in both camps. India’s batting will remain unchanged barring a late injury, with Raina having conclusively stolen a march over Yusuf Pathan after the quarter-final against Australia. Their bowling though – more specifically the identity of the man who will share the new ball with Zaheer – is still uncertain. None of Munaf, Nehra or Sreesanth have lit the stands on fire with their performances so far, and going in with any one of them will be a gamble. The think-tank is likely to go with the bowler who has shown the best rhythm in the nets, while taking into account the fact that the bowler in question needs to be mentally strong for the pressures that such a match brings.

Pakistan’s main dilemma is whether to include Shoaib Akhtar over Wahab Riaz. Akhtar is a proven match-winner, but hasn’t had the the best recent form. Moreover, he does not inspire 100% confidence of getting through 10 full overs. The other question for Pakistan is on whether Saeed Ajmal will get a game or not. Pakistan could opt for Afridi as the lone spinner, with a pace heavy attack, but if they go with two spinners, it will be Ajmal competing with Abdur Rehman for a spot.

The Verdict:

The concept of favourites has not really worked all the time in this World Cup, and in this match, it will matter even less who is stronger on paper. It will matter even less that India has never beaten Pakistan at Mohali or that Pakistan have never beaten India in a World Cup. Such records are meaningless except in posterity.

What will matter is who among the twenty two players will be able to seize the moment. Who will be able to turn the flow of the match – as Sachin Tendulkar memorably did in 2003 – and to recognize that cricketing immortality lies in the moment thus seized: with one shot magically played, one over perfectly bowled, one catch breath-takingly caught.

Blockbuster is too mild a word. It’s going to be epic.

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