The India-Pakistan clash in the Asia Cup is a game neither can afford to lose as fans and history egg them on. But the Mirpur match-up between the two teams on Saturday will be as much a tale of two captains as it will be a story of two countries.
Any preview of a Twenty20 tussle between the intense rivals will always take one back to the final of the first World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007. Although Pakistan made amends by winning the title two years later, that ill-advised scoop by Misbah-ul Haq in Johannesburg will be remembered forever.
With the World T20 starting in less than a fortnight, plenty will be read into the result of the first Asia Cup to be played in the shortest format. But both teams have been in enough dramatic encounters over three decades in the tournament --- it is all square in the Asia Cup with the teams tied 5-all in the ODI editions with one match producing no result.
State of leadership
First about the captains of both sides, and here Mahendra Singh Dhoni scores heavily over Shahid Afridi on leadership. Returning to lead the limited-overs side in Australia at the start of the year, Dhoni looked rusty with the bat and a touch unsure whether he would be able to drive home his leadership philosophy in a bunch that had just tasted Test success -- against Sri Lanka and South Africa.
It took four defeats before Dhoni, acknowledged for his dynamic captaincy in the shorter formats, roped in an untested Jasprit Bumrah for the final ODI. The win in the final game eased the pain of the 1-4 ODI series loss, but helped transform the side for the Twenty20 series that followed. With rookie all-rounder Hardik Pandya also repeatedly responding brilliantly, Dhoni has shed all tentativeness in the captaincy department.
Afridi has laid India low with his sensational hitting in the past, but has left the team and selectors bemused with his announcement two days ago that he was reconsidering his international retirement at the end of the WT20. Pakistan have constantly had to grapple with instability, and this doesn’t help.
The Amir factor
While batting has always been an issue for Pakistan, their Indian counterparts are on a roll. The return of young pacer Mohammad Amir after his fixing ban will make it an exciting contest, especially if the Mirpur pitch is anywhere near as lively as it was for India’s opening game against Bangladesh. It will be a perfect occasion for both sides to test their nerves as well.
But the context for India-Pakistan matches is not always on the pitch. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and players have been unhappy that the much-awaited bilateral series with India late last year did not materialise. It was Pakistan’s turn to stage the matches and India’s refusal to play in a neutral venue or in the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan’s ‘home turf’, has not gone down well.
The stakes for both sides would have been massive had Pakistan decided not to play the WT20. For now, it will be a preamble to a possible meeting between the two in the later stages of the Asia Cup, and the March 19 WT20 clash in Dharamsala.
For those looking to set the agenda, the last time the two met at the Mirpur ground, in the 2014 Asia Cup group stage, Pakistan squeezed through by one wicket with two balls to spare.