When does a tournament final become more than one? When Australia played New Zealand at Melbourne in March 2015, was there an additional angle to that of it just being an ODI World Cup final? If England had clashed with Australia here at the Oval, would its outcome have the same bearing on the lives of people in these two countries?
The answer is a most vehement no, to both the latter questions. For the first, you can point to one particular World T20 final. On a fine September afternoon in Johannesburg in 2007, India clashed with Pakistan, and in the aftermath of MS Dhoni lifting the trophy, world cricket was never the same again. It might not be quite the same impact when either Virat Kohli or Sarfaraz Ahmed lifts the Champions Trophy on Sunday evening in London.
But surely, there will be reports of television sets being broken, the odd heart attack and indeed effigies being burnt on one side of the border. The other side might just regale with post-match jokes on social media, for that is the in-thing now apparently. None of this would transpire if any other two sides were instead clashing at the summit. It matters because, well, it is India versus Pakistan.
“It’s been quite a few years I have been dealing with (expectations), so nothing new. Honestly, you cannot think of those things when you step onto the field. I don’t see any relevance of the first game here in the final, because you can never tell how a particular team starts a tournament. Some teams start very confidently and then they fade off. Some teams might not have the best starts, and they come back amazingly, which Pakistan have done,” said Virat Kohli, ahead of the final.
It has been ten years since India-Pakistan played twice in an ICC tournament. Back in the inaugural World T20 in South Africa, the arch rivals had clashed first in the group stage, and then again in the final, with Pakistan going on to lose both. It has become a bit of a mental block thereafter, for they have only beaten India once in an ICC tournament (2009 Champions Trophy) since then.
Pakistan had led India 2-1 in terms of the overall Champions Trophy head-to-head, and after that opening-game defeat in Birmingham, that record is also now on an equal pegging. Look at it whichever way you want, India are the hot favourites going into this final. Then again, when has that mattered in this particular clash, irrespective of the stage?
“We dissected India a lot before the game at Edgbaston, and we’ve sort of backtracked a little bit on that,” said Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur, on rectifying their mistakes from the first game against India.
“We are sort of solidifying what we did really well, confirming what we’ve done well in terms of our bowling, in terms of our batting, in terms of our fielding, and building on that. So, Sunday is going to be about us rather than the opposition, and we’ve made the focus us, as a team.”
Never mind his words, Pakistan will take a keen look at how India faltered against Sri Lanka. The latter went after India’s lone spinner as well as Hardik Pandya and chased down 322 runs with consummate ease. It forced Kohli to change his combination, with Ravi Ashwin finally coming into the eleven and playing a handsome role against both South Africa and Bangladesh. Pandya, however, continues to be the worry as he has only completed his quota of 10 overs only once in this tournament, that too when South Africa wilted under pressure.
“I would back a guy like Hardik who provides so much balance in conditions that he can be effective as a bowler, and his batting is priceless. He is a gun fielder, and when he bowls well, he can easily give you seven overs, which is a relief for me as captain. He can get you a couple of wickets, and then with the bat, and then field anywhere. Yeah, I would not think of changing anything at this particular stage,” said Kohli, when asked about his fifth-bowler conundrum.
In a way then, it showcases clearly to Pakistan what India will do on Sunday. The Men in Blue are pretty predictable in the manner they have scored runs, but it is their bowling that has been traditionally worrisome. With Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah forming an effective new-ball pairing given the lack of swing, and Ashwin-Jadeja doing spin duties as always, Pandya’s inability to finish his overs brings in an unsurprising element to the field.
Alternately, you never know what Pakistan will bring to the table. India do not know if they will open with spin again, or with pace from both ends (Mohammad Amir is fit to play, though). They do not know if Pakistan batsmen will be defensive or attack from the word go, like Sri Lanka. Most importantly, no one knows if Pakistan can indeed even hold it together and put one across their most fearsome rivals.
It is the predictable versus the unpredictable. More than that, it is a mental battle as always, and putting the tag of ‘Champions Trophy final’ doesn’t change it one bit.