Feb 27: World cricket’s most intriguing rivalry will once again be renewed when India take on an unpredictable Pakistan with rehabilitated pacer Mohammed Amir being the focus of attention in a round-robin league encounter of the Asia Cup T20 tournament here on Saturday.
The match will also serve as a pre-cursor to the two teams’ opening round battle in the ICC World Twenty20, next month.
The Indo-Pak cricket contests over the years have carried a legacy, not to forget the political undercurrents involved whenever the two bitter neighbours square off on the 22 yards.
But the most exciting aspect will be whether the tainted Amir gets to play in the XI.
Back after serving a five-year ban for spot-fixing, Amir has started playing for the national team since the tour of New Zealand and this immensely talented bowler will certainly come out all guns blazing against the Indian batsmen.
Virat Kohli has already welcomed Amir’s return but not much is known as to what other Indian players, including skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, think about the convicted spot- fixer’s inclusion.
In India, the BCCI has taken a zero tolerance approach imposing life bans on players like S Sreesanth, Ankeet Chavan, Ajit Chandila, who have no hopes of returning to competitive cricket.
For Amir though, a good performance against India will probably help him gain some credibility not only in the dressing room but also among the common cricket-loving public in Pakistan.
In terms of preparation, both teams have been suitably prepared considering the amount of Twenty20 cricket they have played in the past one month.
India already kicked off their World T20 preparations in style, having won six out of the seven games played so far.
Pakistan cricketers, on the other hand, are coming straight after playing in the Pakistan Super League (PSL), which keeps them well prepared.
Traditionally, India have never ever lost to Pakistan in the global events but it has not been the case in the continental event where Shahid Afridi and co have performed well.
However, the Asia Cup has never been played in the T20 format, which is also a first.
The two teams met exactly a year and 11 days back in Adelaide during the 50-over World Cup game which India won by 76 runs.
Post World Cup, the proposed series on a neutral venue never happened as the BCCI did not get approval from the Indian government.
On field, the Indian team, under Dhoni, is peaking at the right time with all the departments coming together. The emergence of Hardik Pandya as a batting all-rounder, who can bowl seam-up, has lent the side requisite balance that Dhoni had long been craving for.
Over the years, one has been a witness to Pakistan teams hitting the zenith and nadir in a space of few matches.
On paper, Indians are way ahead in each and every department of the game but the beauty of this game is Pakistan’s unpredictability.
The only worry would be Dhoni’s back spasm even though he played ignoring the pain against Bangladesh in their 45-run win. In case Dhoni decides to skip, there is Parthiv Patel as cover.
For India, there hasn’t been much place for experiments with the playing XI. Rohit Sharma has emerged as the next big match-winner after Virat Kohli in the shorter formats. Shikhar Dhawan can be inconsistent but, on his day, he can murder any bowling attack.
For Pakistan, their opening pair is likely to be Mohammed Hafeez and Sharjeel Khan, who just had a good PSL scoring 299 runs for his franchise. However, compared to the Dhawan-Rohit pairing, the duo of Sharjeel-Hafeez don’t have the same kind of pedigree.
There is no denying Umar Akmal’s talent but the temperamental right-hander, who used to be once considered at par with Virat Kohli, has fallen way behind in the race.
However, Akmal’s 355 runs for Lahore Qalanders in the PSL will give him confidence.
But when it comes to a match against Pakistan, Kohli invariably raises his game and has played some superlative knocks on big occasions. Having not scored too many against Bangladesh, the Indian vice-captain would be itching to hit it big against the arch-rivals.
Coming to the captains, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s dependability is any day more than his counterpart Shahid Afridi, who has time and again shown “natural ability” to commit hara-kiri at crucial junctures.
In the middle-order Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina are also bigger match-winners than Shoaib Malik and Khurram Manzoor. Yuvraj, however, needs a significant innings which will certainly bolster his confidence.
With skipper Dhoni firmly backing the veteran to come good, that is exactly the shot in the arm that the stylish left-hander would require before the big event.
In the spin bowling department, the absence of leg- spinner Yasir Shah will be a problem for the Pakistan team.
Afridi will bowl his fast leg-breaks but the Indians have played him well in the past without much difficulty.
Ravichandran Ashwin is one bowler that Pakistanis did not negotiate well in the past. With the accurate Ravindra Jadeja for company, they would form a better pair than Afridi’s combination with left-arm spinner Mohammed Nawaz, fresh from his 13 wickets in PSL.
The only department that Pakistan are on even keel with India is pace bowling. There is not much to choose between Amir/Wahab Riaz and Ashish Nehra.
All of them can swing the ball, have lovely variations with Wahab and Amir being slightly quicker than the nearly 37 -year-old Nehra.
Mohammed Sami has made a comeback but just like Shaun Tait, his dependence on sheer pace can cost him dearly against the current Indian batting line-up, which has a fetish of playing the quicks.
There is also very little difference between Anwar Ali and Jasprit Bumrah. Overall, India are runaway favourites but anything can happen in a game of Twenty20.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ashish Nehra, Jasprit Bumrah, Ajinkya Rahane, Parthiv Patel, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Harbhajan Singh
Pakistan: Shahid Afridi (captain), Mohammed Hafeez, Sharjeel Khan, Umar Akmal, Shoaib Malik, Khurram Manzoor, Mohammed Nawaz, Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), Mohammed Aamir, Mohamed Irfan, Mohammed Sami, Wahab Riaz, Anar Ali, Iftikhar Ahmed, Imaad Wasim, Mohammed Amir.
Match starts at 7pm (IST).