We are only ONE sleep away from one of the most awaited clashes in this edition of the T20 World Cup as India lock horns against arch-rivals Pakistan at a packed Newlands stadium in Cape Town for their opening fixture.
There is always a sense of excitement in an India and Pakistan rivalry, and this high-voltage game ain't any different. While the magnitude of the match might not be like the one millions of fans experienced at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in October last year, dare I say, there will not be any dearth of intensity from the two sides when they step onto the field.
Unlike the men's rivalry, which has produced some riveting games in the past that will be etched in the memory of every fan, it has been a fairly one-sided affair, with the Indian team winning 10 out of the 13 T20I matches played thus far.
However, despite their phenomenal record against Pakistan, Harmanpreet Kaur and her young brigade will be well aware of the result, the last time these two sides met in Sylhet.
After a gap of almost six years, the Women in Blue suffered a 13-run defeat against a clinical Pakistan outfit that not only rattled world cricket but also showcased on their given day, the green army can dominate pretty much any opposition.
With plenty of fire among the 22 players set to take on the field, it promises to be a blockbuster Sunday with ebbs and flows that will indeed have people glued to their television sets.
Things to watch out for
Well, well, well, there are lots of things to look forward in this marquee clash, but let us start by addressing the big one: The Women's Premier League auction.
While this will surely not be a distraction for the Pakistan players, the inaugural edition of the tournament and the auction set for February 13 looms large on the state of mind of the Indian players.
"It's a really big day for all of us because we have been waiting for years and years now. The next two or three months are very important for women's cricket," the Indian skipper stated in the captain's press conference.
"We have seen how the WBBL and the Hundred have helped their countries improve their cricket. But, before the auction, we have a very important game against Pakistan, and we are just going to focus on that," she further added.
Well, only time will tell how much of an impact this could have on the outcome of the game, but the Indian fans would hope it does not affect the players one bit because, mind you, they are entering this tournament as one of the favourites along with Australia.
While the auction isn't the only thing looming large over the Indian camp, there is also slightly sombre news coming out of the team even before they kickstart their World Cup campaign as Smriti Mandhana is struggling with a finger injury and would possibly be out of the game.
A MASSIVE blow for the Women in Blue!!!
And the big question is, how does India recover from this jolt?
This will leave the Indian team with only two left-handed batting options in the top seven, and in an era of match-ups, India would really hope this does not derail their plans against the left-arm spin of Nashra Sandhu.
India are not the only team sweating over injury concerns, as Pakistan have been rocked by an injury as well to their premier fast bowler, Diana Baig, just ahead of the mega event.
The right-arm seamer has fractured her finger and is ruled out of the competition, with Aiman Anwer most likely to take her place in the playing XI with her gentle medium pace.
Another aspect of the Bismah Maroof side to dwell deep into is the lack of opening partnerships with the bat for them in this format. The opening partnerhsip of the Pakistan side averages 16.2, which is the second-worst among the top ten nations.
With the experienced Javeria Khan returning to the side after a bit of hiatus, the onus will rely heavily on her to give the team a solid start in the powerplay.
Pitch and conditions
The wicket at the Newlands cricket stadium has been the talk of the town as far as cricketing pundits are concerned. While the surfaces in South Africa are known to assist the pacers and aid strokeplay, the conditions in Cape Town have been surprising, to say the least.
The pitch has offered a considerable amount of turn for the tweakers and is set to be the same for this mouth-watering clash. With the Indian batters known to have a liking of the ball coming onto the bat, the sluggish nature of the surface is set to be one of the significant reasons that will decide the outcome of the game.
One of the most consistent performers for Pakistan since the 2020 edition of the T20 World Cup Down Under, Nida Dar will once again be the key for them in this encounter. In the last match between the two sides, the right-handed batter smashed an unbeaten 56 off 37 deliveries to power Pakistan to a stunning win.
While she has a wealth of experience playing this format, Harmanpreet Kaur could opt to use her fast bowlers a bit more to rattle her early into the innings, as she averages only 19.05 against them and strikes at 93.91. With Pooja Vastrakar in the ranks, Harmanpreet could use her pace to bounce Dar out and dent Pakistan's backbone.
Pakistan have two quality left-arm spinners in Sandhu and Sadia Iqbal, to derail India's top order on wickets assisting the slower bowlers. With Mandhana most likely not to feature in the game, the duo will hold the key for the side in favourable conditions and could well and truly give Pakistan an edge with some early wickets.
While the Women in Blue look like a settled unit with most of their bases covered, they will look to add the services of Harleen Deol if their vice-captain fails to recover.
Along with this, looking at the conditions, they will opt for a four-member spin attack with Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Radha Yadav, Deepti Sharma and Devika Vaidya, resulting in their last series sensation, Anjali Sarvani missing out.
Predicted India XI: Harmanpreet Kaur (Captain), Shafali Verma, Jemimah Rodrigues, Smriti Mandhana /Harleen Deol, Devika Vaidya, Deepti Sharma, Richa Ghosh, Pooja Vastrakar, Renuka Singh, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Radha Yadav
On the other hand, Pakistan will look to rely on the experience of Javeria Khan and Bishmah Maroof to shoulder the responsibility of the side with the bat, along with some quick runs from Aliya Riaz.
In the absence of Diana Baig, Ainman Anwar and Fatima Sana will spearhead the fast-bowling duties along with the spin trio of Sadia Iqbal, Nida Dar and Nashra Sandhu.
Predicted Pakistan XI: Bismah Maroof (Captain), Aiman Anwar, Aliya Riaz, Ayesha Naseem, Fatima Sana, Javeria Khan, Nida Dar, Omaima Sohail, Sadia Iqbal, Sidra Amin, Nashra Sandhu