It is Friday. A gloomy afternoon suddenly brightens up as the sun comes out at Old Trafford. It’s a welcome sight for all present. With two days to go before the mother of all World Cup battles takes place at the venue the outfield needs all the sunlight it can get. But just a few hours later, everything changes. It is now raining heavily in Manchester. The showers continue for hours.
It is Saturday morning. I arrive at Old Trafford to cover the training sessions of India and Pakistan and later the press conferences. I ask the security guy, a local Trafford man, whether he thinks it would rain on Sunday. “I’m afraid it would. Though I hope it won’t,” he said.
The entire cricket world would be hoping that the weather gods allow the marquee clash of the World Cup to go on smoothly.
But rains, which have already washed out four of the World Cup matches, could play a role in the outcome of Sunday’s game. Though it’s almost a must-win game for the Pakistanis, I’m sure that they would be secretly hoping that they get a point from it. They were disappointed when their Bristol game against Sri Lanka was washed out. That’s because they were confident of winning that match. But Sunday’s much-anticipated encounter against India is a different story.
Pakistan are well aware of the fact that India have the edge in all departments of the game. They will take the field at Old Trafford as firm favourites having won all the matches they have played in the World Cup so far. Their match against New Zealand was abandoned without a ball bowled. The Black Caps have also done well in the tournament but the Indians were favourites to win that game too.
The Kohli juggernaut arrived in England having covered all its bases. It began with a win against South Africa and then swaggered to a 36-run triumph against chief title rivals Australia at The Oval. With top batters like Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in prime form, the Indians look like a side that can post big totals almost at will
Their bowling too has improved in the last two years since Pakistan’s famous victory against India in the ICC Champions Trophy in England in 2017. The likes of Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are now ranked among the most lethal pacers in this contest. Their fielding is also top-notch.
Pakistan, meanwhile, have blown hot and cold in the World Cup.
They were chicken-hearted in a seven-wicket defeat against the West Indies but bounced back to tame formidable England. Then they squandered their opportunities on their way to a 41-run defeat against Australia in Taunton last Wednesday. Their batting looked spineless in front of a barrage of well-targeted West Indian bouncers. But it managed to click against England to post what was at that point in time the highest total in World Cup 2019. Against Australia, Pakistan survived Fakhar Zaman’s early dismissal to bring themselves to a point where they could have chased 308. But soft dismissals meant that Pakistan were unable to get past the finish line despite a rearguard effort from the likes of Wahab Riaz and Hasan Ali.
While the Indians look solid in all departments of the game, Pakistan have chinks all over their armour.
Let’s start with their batting.
The Pakistanis rely heavily on Fakhar to give them a sizzling start but the big-hitting opener, who hit a match-winning ton in the Champions Trophy final, is yet to really fire in this tournament. He would be one of the key men for Pakistan because if he clicks then Pakistan can really post or chase a big total.
Then we have Imam-ul-Haq. The 23-year-old believes Pakistan rely heavily on him. But he is yet to really do much about it. Imam should have done better than his 74-ball 53 against Australia. He is well aware of that. He should also know that he will need to play a big role against India. To do that he would need to show more determination than he has done in the previous games. I’, sure he can do it.
Same holds true for Babar Azam. Pakistan’s best batsman hasn’t been the team’s best batter in this tournament. He has to do much more than the well-crafted but brief 30 he made in the run-chase against Australia.
Mohammad Hafeez has been in great touch since his match-winning knock against England. But in that game he got a life and made full use of it. The Indians might not be that generous. Hafeez, too, needs to put his best foot forward.
From what I’ve learnt from sources, the Pakistanis are adamant to keep the misfiring Shoaib Malik in the playing eleven. They believe a big knock is due on him and he has the guts and experience to deliver in a crunch game like the one against India. It could be a case of wishful thinking because so far Malik has shown no signs that a big knock is round the corner. Sarfraz believes that but seeing is believing!
The captain himself also needs to pull up his socks. He has been making contributions to the Pakistani total but one is yet to see the sort of confidence which enabled him to marshal his troops from a hopeless situation to win the Champions Trophy. He will need to be at his best both as a senior middle-order batsman and captain if Pakistan are to have a chance against India on Sunday.
As for the pace attack, Pakistan rely too heavily on the back-to-form Mohammad Amir. The left-armer was the reason why Pakistan were able to keep their Taunton match against Australia competitive. Wahab Riaz has also been doing well but Pakistan need more from the likes of Hasan Ali. One of the stars of Pakistan’s Champions Trophy triumph, Hasan has been unable to make his presence felt in the World Cup.
I had great expectations from Asif Ali but he has been disappointing both with the bat and in the field. Pakistan will have to drop him and bring back Shadab Khan.
But whatever they do, they will take the field today as the underdogs. That isn’t a bad thing for them. They will just need to punch above their weight and surprise India. They’ve done it before and they can do it again.
Khalid Hussain is Editor Sports of The News