T20 World Cup: Virat Kohli the constant for India, Pakistan hopes on talisman Babar Azam
- The India skipper hasn’t been dismissed in three T20 World Cup games against Pakistan going into Sunday’s blockbuster while counterpart Azam has plenty to prove.
For India, their World Cup score against Pakistan across the white-ball formats reads a happy 11-0. The ODI aggregate is a neat 7-0 while the five T20 World Cup games between two intense rivals started with a tie—India won the Bowl Out though—to make it 4-0-1.
Though the results have been so lopsided and India have flexed their muscles in different ways—six of the ODI wins have come while batting first while the last three T20 wins were achieved chasing—the focus in the build-up has always been about the talisman who can extend the sequence for India, or help Pakistan turn the tide.
And come Sunday’s blockbuster in Dubai, the teams as well as their legion of fans will pin their faith on Virat Kohli and Babar Azam carrying their batting hopes.
There are two caveats though. Kohli, despite his subdued form going into this T20 World Cup, has been a global leader for years now. So, a like-for-like comparison with Azam has been more about what they mean to their teams. Azam, the delightful batter whose batting is the gold standard for Pakistan, though has been in great T20 form this year—seven 40-plus scores in 14 outings with a century against South Africa in Centurion. And T20 is so much about team over individual.
“There is pressure in an India-Pakistan game, emotions run very high, especially in Dubai where Indians and Pakistanis are there. You can’t call it any other game. It’s more than a game,” says former India skipper Dilip Vengsarkar, whose peak career in the 1980s coincided with the teams meeting regularly in Sharjah.
Kohli’s record towers over everyone. The premier batsman has dominated all three India-Pakistan T20 World Cup clashes, helping chase down targets each time. Since his first World Cup in 2012 in Sri Lanka, he has not been dismissed by Pakistan bowlers. In Colombo’s R Premadasa Stadium, his unbeaten 78 off 61 balls made easy work of the 128-run target. In 2014, at Mirpur, Bangladesh, Kohli’s unbeaten 36 off 32 balls did it. In 2016 at Eden Gardens, Kohli again made the difference with a masterly 55 off 37 balls to seal the chase on a pitch that had been under the covers and afforded sharp turn.
“Possibly (playing against Pakistan) it brings the best out of him… It’s a high-pressure game. Temperament plays a very important role. There are players who enjoy pressure; some will crumble under it, especially in a game of this magnitude,” Vengsarkar said. “When you go on the ground you will face abuses from the Pakistan fans and vice versa. You have to be at the top of your game,” the fomer India captain and chief selector said.
For some years, Kohli has taken on the role Tendulkar played, mostly against Pakistan’s fast bowlers and top batters like Inzamam-ul Haq. Kohli, 32, has been at the top of the pecking order for a long time. Azam is tipped to become the next big thing in world cricket. In ICC rankings, Babar is No. 2 in T20s and No. 1 in ODIs while Kohli is currently No. 4 in T20s and No. 2 and in ODIs. More importantly, they are the captains.
Having missed the 2016 edition due to a wrist injury, it will be Babar’s first T20 World Cup. “He is a top-class player, very good technique and temperament. He has all the shots,” said Vengsarkar.
There are shades of Kohli in Azam’s style of play, especially in the sub-continent wristy game in cover drives and flicks. Babar ha only played ODIs against India, and has not managed a fifty in five matches. At the 2019 ODI World Cup at Old Trafford, he was out for 48 though he aggregated 474 runs in eight games, the highest by a Pakistan batsman in a World Cup.
Kohli played down the hype while Azam wants to focus on his game.
“For us it’s just a game of cricket that has to be played in the right way… I have always approached this game (like that),” he has said. “Yes, the environment you can say is different on the outside from the fans’ point of view, it’s definitely louder, there is definitely more excitement in the air. But from the players’ point of view we stay as professional as we can…”
In a recent interview to former Pakistan skipper Rameez Raja—he is the Pakistan board chief now—Azam said his focus is to be regarded among the game’s top five batsmen. “You are always competing with the best players, (to do that) you have to do better than them.”
“I am rarely satisfied with my performance, I don’t look at my past performances. I look to the future, what improvements I have to make. I watch my innings later and try to see where I could have done better,” he said. “My mindset is to spend some time at the crease; after that I will run the game as I want… I believe a lot in preparation, if I don’t get two hours in the net I am not satisfied.”
Regardless of where they stand in cricket’s batting hierarchy, the pressure of expectations from their fans will be equally huge. Kohli has decided to step down as T20 skipper after the tournament will be extra motivated to sign off with a title and nothing better than starting with a win over Pakistan.
Azam spoke of tackling pressure in his interview to Raja: “I keep captaincy out of my mind when I go out to bat, keep my mind blank.” Being reminded of that winless run against India though will make that difficult on Sunday.