India skipper Virat Kohli has reiterated the need for his men to be ‘absolutely professional’ as they get ready to lock horns with arch-rivals Pakistan in a 2019 ICC World Cup clash at Manchester on Sunday.
Emotions are set to run high at Old Trafford with the two sides coming into the clash in the backdrop of a worsening political climate between the subcontinent neighbours. Tensions continue to run high since the suicide-bombing attack on an Indian army convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir at the start of the year which claimed 40 lives.
Since then, relations between the two countries have been on a downward spiral with several fans even calling for a boycott of the World Cup clash before the start of the tournament.
“I think the best way to approach something like this, if one focuses too much on what’s going on the outside, it’s to understand that the game starts tomorrow at a certain time and it finishes at a certain time,” Kohli said on the eve of the much-awaited clash.
“So it’s not going to last a lifetime for you, whether you do well or you don’t.
“From the fans’ point of view, looking at the atmosphere and frenzy around the game, I wouldn’t say it’s easy to think like a player. For the players, it’s very, very crucial to be absolutely professional.”
The momentum is very much with India for Sunday’s clash with the Men in Blue arriving in Manchester on the back of two wins and one no-result. Pakistan, on the other hand, are in desperate need of a win with just one victory to show for from their four games so far.
While India have prevailed in all six previous World Cup meetings with Pakistan, they will be wary of their 2017 Champions Trophy final defeat against the same opponents in England itself. Then, a superb century from Fakhar Zaman and a terrific opening spell from Mohammed Amir had sealed a thumping 180-run win for the Men in Green.
Kohli, however, is treating the game like any other and refused to pinpoint a particular threat from the Pakistan side.
“We’re not focusing on the opposition, so for us no one’s a threat. For us, no one player matters more than the other,” Kohli stated.
“It’s about going into the park as the Indian cricket team and taking on whichever team is in front of us. If we play well, we can beat any side in the world.”
India have some tinkering to do in their playing XI for Sunday’s clash with opener Shikhar Dhawan sidelined with a fractured thumb. With KL Rahul set to move to an opening role, Kohli needs to make a call between Vijay Shankar and Dinesh Karthik for the No4 slot.
However, with the threat of rain looming large on Sunday, Kohli is keeping his options open for now.
“We can’t be rigid in our approach because, if the conditions are very different from what we played in the last game, then we’ll have to think of different combinations, ” he said.
“If the length of the game is going to be full and we expect the game to be 50 overs both sides, then we’ll probably think of another combination, but we’ll have to be flexible.”
Blue and green will be the colours at Old Trafford on Sunday as the two neighbours get ready to renew their historic rivalry.
Emotions will run high at Old Trafford and there will be plenty of nerves to deal with on the field for both sets of players. There will also be several intriguing sub-plots in play which could have a decisive impact on the final outcome.
Here, we look at three such sub-plots which will be key at Manchester.
ROHIT V AMIR
The wounds of the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy final defeat against Pakistan in England will still be fresh in the minds of Rohit Sharma as he prepares to face up to his old foe Mohammad Amir.
Amir’s destructive spell in that final blew away India’s top-order including Rohit and he will be looking to avoid a repeat on Sunday.
With Shikhar Dhawan injured, there is even greater responsibility on Rohit’s shoulders to get India off to a good start but the right-hander has his task cut out against an in-form Amir. The India deputy skipper has a well-known vulnerability against left-arm pacers who have dismissed him 23 times so far in 202 ODI innings.
Rohit himself has been in good form in the World Cup with a century and fifty in two games but he is up against a resurgent Amir. The Pakistan seamer had been in dismal form leading up to the World Cup but he has already picked up 10 wickets in the tournament in three matches including a maiden fiver.
BUMRAH v FAKHAR
Another sub-plot which continues from the 2017 Champions Trophy final is the battle between Fakhar Zaman and Jasprit Bumrah. Bumrah had got the better of the Pakistan opener early in that final but the delivery was deemed to be a no-ball.
That reprieve proved costly for India and Bumrah with Fakhar going on to register a quick-fire century which paved the way for a 180-run win for Pakistan. Since then, Bumrah has gone on to establish himself as the No1 white-ball bowler in the world while Fakhar became the first ever ODI double-centurion for Pakistan.
Both the players come into Sunday’s clash in contrasting forms with Bumrah looking menacing while Fakhar has struggled for runs so far. The Pakistan opener can take the game away from India if he gets in at the crease but he will need to be at his very best to negate the threat of Bumrah.
KOHLI v SARFRAZ
In a pressure-cooker situation of an India-Pakistan clash, how the captains marshal their troops will be crucial. Both Virat Kohli and Sarfraz Ahmed like to wear their hearts on their sleeves on the field but they might need to rein it in a bit as they seek to deal with the pressure of the match.
For Kohli, it will be all about keeping his side’s feet on the ground after their impressive start to the campaign while Sarfraz will need to rally his troops after what has been a disappointing tournament so far bar a win against hosts England.
How they both go with the bat will also be critical for their respective sides on Sunday. Kohli will be determined to anchor the innings for India and bat most of the 50 overs while Sarfraz has a big job on his hands in shoring up Pakistan’s vulnerable middle-order.
Here is an unpopular opinion – India-Pakistan matches stopped being competitive a long time ago. Be it ODI cricket or T20s, clashes between the traditional subcontinent rivals have stopped producing close encounters even though the tension and drama surrounding it makes it look like the BEST. MATCH. EVER.
The last time and India-Pakistan match saw a close contest was all the way back in 2014 when Pakistan beat India by one wicket. Since then, the next five matches have been a one-way street. Even in T20s, just one in the last five games going back to 2102 have come even close to being exciting for just cricketing reasons.
In the recent Asia Cup in the UAE, both India-Pakistan matches were won comprehensively by the men in blue. But still, it’s India-Pakistan so it is never just another game, is it?
Virat Kohli might ask fans to take it as just a cricket match as much as he wants, but the events leading up to the biggest match of this World Cup – in Manchester on Sunday, should the weather permit – make the latest India-Pakistan encounter a particularly prickly one.
This year has not been good for political relations between the two countries; not that they have been balmy otherwise. It has been just a few months since the two nations came precariously close to war. Armed forces were mobilised, airspaces were closed, and there was genuine fear of imminent disaster.
Ultimately, good sense prevailed. There was no war and we are all still here. But the war hysteria that was whipped up at the beginning of the year continues to live through different mediums. The Indian cricket team tried to pay homage to its fallen soldiers during the bilateral series against Australia by wearing military caps. MS Dhoni brought that sentiment into the ongoing World Cup, sporting an army emblem on his glove which was quickly deemed against the rules by the ICC.
Then reports emerged that Pakistan had planned ‘special’ celebrations for the India match but the idea was apparently shot down by Prime Minister and World Cup winning captain Imran Khan. Those reports were altogether denied by the Pakistan management. But if they are true, it wouldn’t come as a surprise in these times. Last year, Pakistan fast bowler Hasan Ali caused an uproar when he taunted Indian border security during the flag-lowering ceremony at the international border with his trademark wicket celebration.
So when some say ‘it’s just a match’ and ‘treat it like any other game’, they are just trying their best to keep emotions in check. The 22 players out on the field don’t need to be told that well over a billion will watch the match in Manchester on Sunday; that politics, war, armies and cricketers of the two nations have become more enmeshed than ever before.
Maybe words will be said or celebrations done with a reference to what happened between the two nations earlier in the year. Emotions will be high, even if the cricket may not be of the highest quality. But hey, it’s India-Pakistan. When was it ever about runs and wickets?