The two arch rivals will meet on the pitch to battle out who gets the upper hand in the T20 World Cup tournament.
Roberto Perfumo, the former Argentina football captain, once famously said: “In 1986, winning that game against England was enough. Winning the World Cup that year was secondary for us. Beating England was our real aim.”
Ask any Pakistani cricketer and he would most likely have similar comments to make about Sunday night’s high-voltage T20 World Cup opener between Pakistan and India at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium.
If Argentina and England have the fiercest intercontinental rivalry in international football, then Pakistan and India have the most serious sporting rivalry between two neighbourly countries.
When the two nations, who have fought wars in the past, face each other on the cricket field, competing players can become overnight heroes.
But one poor performance and you could be a villain for your own fans for the rest of your life. Indian pacer Chetan Sharma is a living example as he is still remembered for bowling that fateful last ball in the final of the 1986 Sharjah Cup. Not many care about the rest of his international career.
Javed Miandad, the man who hit a memorable six off that last delivery from Sharma, is still placed on a pedestal in Pakistan for winning the Sharjah Cup against India.
Miandad had an illustrious international career in which he won Pakistan many international matches and also played a pivotal role in helping the country claim its only 50-over World Cup title in 1992.
But it is his Sharjah Cup heroics 32 years ago that really make him a legend for Pakistani fans.
But men like Miandad and Sharma were part of a bygone era, a time when Pakistan would, more often than not, ride roughshod over India on the cricket field.
Times have changed. Today, India is a team brimming with both proven and potential match-winners. Led by Virat Kohli, the Indians will begin Sunday night’s match as favourites.
The Indian team has been in the UAE for weeks having featured in this year’s edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Cricket’s most lucrative professional league, the IPL was moved to the UAE because India was struggling to cope with the latest wave of the pandemic.
The IPL’s relocation from India to the UAE turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Indian players, who have had sufficient opportunities to adapt to local conditions ahead of the T20 World Cup by playing in dozens of IPL games in venues like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
This factor gives an added advantage to a side that already has several of the world’s leading cricketers in its squad.
India’s formidable batting lineup has the likes of the seasoned Kohli, the highly-prolific Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul and the combative Rishabh Pant.
As if this trio wasn’t enough, Wasim Akram, the former Pakistan captain, recently singled out Suryakumar Yadav as another potential game-changer, warning opponents to be wary of the aggressive batter.
Jasprit Bumrah, whom many critics count among the best T20 bowlers in the world, spearheads India’s impressive pace attack. Then there is the experienced Mohammad Shami. Brett Lee, the former Australia speedster, is a big fan and has predicted that Shami will end the T20 World Cup with the most wickets.
Can Pakistan rewrite history?
History, too, is also heavily stacked in India’s favour. They have never lost against Pakistan in a World Cup match. Even in 1992, when Pakistan triumphed in the World Cup, they were unable to tame the Indians.
So can the Pakistanis rewrite history and wash away their World Cup ignominy against India once and for all?
Matthew Hayden, who was recently entrusted with the role of Pakistan’s batting coach, sees Sunday’s game as a “real dogfight” and believes Pakistan have the guts to prevail despite all odds.
Hayden is of the view that in challenging UAE conditions, leadership will play a key role in the World Cup — and he sees Pakistani skipper Babar Azam as a fully capable leader.
"The conditions and the margins for errors are very little and so good leadership is going to be key. I think Babar has that and commands that presence and that role and he needs to fulfill that role and in a batting sense as well,” he recently told journalists.
“He, I think, is the premium player and he will be targeted. He will also be the person that everyone is wanting to put in his pocket. There's going to be additional pressure on him, both as a captain and also as a batsman. I sense that the way that he goes about it is going to be spot on.”
So how do you conquer a clearly superior opposition that has a 100 percent win record in World Cup matches against you?
Well, for starters, Pakistan will need to punch above its weight just like it did in the summer of 2017 in England. The venue was the iconic Oval cricket ground in London and the occasion was a mouth-watering ICC Champions Trophy final featuring Pakistan and India.
India had crushed Pakistan in a league game earlier in the tournament and was seen as the overwhelming favourite to win the Champions Trophy.
But nothing went according to script in what turned out to be a one-sided final. A packed stadium watched in awe as the Pakistanis unleashed a series of lethal blows both with the bat and ball.
Left-handed opener Fakhar Zaman came out of nowhere to hit what later turned out to be a match-winning ton before pacer Mohammad Amir ripped through a much vaunted Indian batting top-order bamboozling the likes of Kohli in the process. Pakistan won by a stunning margin of 180 runs.
Pakistan will need to revive a similar spirit to be able to counter India on Sunday night.
It was hardly surprising when news recently came out that the team’s coaches were making the players see the recordings of the 2017 Champions Trophy matches, especially the final against India.
But Pakistan will need more than just rekindling the winning spirit. They will also need to come out with plans to counter the threat posed by the likes of Sharma, Rahul, Pant and Bumrah.
Aamir Sohail, the former Pakistan captain, believes the team’s coaches have so far failed to do so.
“With such a big match (against India) just a few days away, we are still undecided about our batting line-up. There is still doubt as to who will open the innings and who will come at number three,” Sohail told TRT World.
He is also concerned about the current form and fitness of a few Pakistani players, especially leg-spinner Shadab Khan.
“Shadab has been struggling for quite some time but somehow despite having an army of coaches nobody has managed to help him curb this slump.”
But it’s not just all doom and gloom for the Pakistanis as they give final touches to their World Cup preparations.
Fakhar Zaman seems to be regaining his golden touch with some fine stroke-making in recent warm-up games while young pacer Shaheen Shah Afridi is currently at his brilliant, wicket-taking best.
Skipper Babar is in fine touch and should successfully anchor Pakistan’s innings along with Mohammad Rizwan.
For both teams Sunday’s game will mark the start of the T20 World Cup.
But for the players and especially for hundreds of millions of Pakistani and Indian fans around the globe, it would be a bigger game than even the November 14 finale in Dubai. In Perfumo’s words: everything else including the World Cup title “will be secondary”.
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