Few matches capture the imagination of the cricketing world like an India-Pakistan contest at a Cricket World Cup. Empty streets, record viewership and a few broken television sets are inevitable when these sides meet at Old Trafford, Manchester on Sunday, June 16.
Pakistan might have the upper hand in ODI encounters, winning 73 matches and losing 54 against their bitter rivals. But in the World Cup India has been invincible so far, securing six wins from as many matches.
A change in narrative
India versus Pakistan has always been built up as a contest between the former’s batting against the latter’s bowling. This time though, it is the contest between India’s bowling and Pakistan’s batting that could hold the key.
In 2017, when these two sides met in the Champions Trophy final, it was Pakistan’s batting that set the contest beyond India’s reach. That loss triggered a radical change in the Indian bowling ranks. Until then, India had relied on finger spinners such as Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, but after that loss they decided to move to wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
Kuldeep and Chahal, popularly known as KulCha, have been the most successful bowlers in the ODI format with 88 and 72 wickets respectively since 2017. While Kuldeep has picked up a wicket every 27.4 deliveries, Chahal has a bowling strike rate of 29.8 over the last two years.
Since the 2017 Champions Trophy, India have a win percentage of 80% when the spin twins pick up three or more wickets in ODIs, and have won all 12 matches when they have picked up five wickets or more.
It hasn’t just been a spin bowling revolution for India -- their fast bowling has been impressive as well. In fact, no pacer has taken more wickets than Jasprit Bumrah (64) during the same period. While the Gujarat quick has been phenomenal in his international career so far, his biggest regret is likely to be the no-ball against Fakhar Zaman in the 2017 Champions Trophy final.
The Pakistan opener was out caught on 3, only to get a reprieve as Bumrah was found to have overstepped. That lapse hurt; Bumrah has since then assiduously worked on his front-foot landing and now hardly ever over-steps. He will want to erase that painful memory when he takes the ball against Fakhar and company on Sunday.
Fakhar, who had debuted in that tournament, has an ODI average of 48.6 with a strike rate almost touching 100. He has been complemented superbly by Imam-ul-Haq over the last couple of years. While Fakhar goes for the big hits, Imam is adept at playing the anchor role. Imam has shown good form at the World Cup, scoring 44 and 53 in his last two games, but will be disappointed that he wasn’t able to make those starts count.
The importance of a good opening stand for Pakistan is underlined by the fact that when Fakhar and Imam put on a partnership of 50+, they win 90% of the games. Following the opening duo, there’s Babar Azam, who has been the best batting find for the Men In Green since the last World Cup.
While he has more runs (2854) than any other Pakistan batsman since the 2015 World Cup, he doesn’t have the best record against India. In four matches so far, he has failed to cross the 50-run mark on each occasion. Among all teams against whom he has played at least three ODI innings, the 24-year-old’s lowest average is against India (27.5) – a record he will want to set right on Sunday, because Babar batting deep is the key to Pakistan’s ability to set up, or chase, big scores.
India’s top three in ODIs – Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli – have been as important to their team. Since the 2015 World Cup, the trio have scored 44 out of India’s 53 ODI centuries, with no other batsman scoring more than two tons.
A huge concern for the Men In Blue is the absence of Dhawan, who suffered a thumb injury during his match-winning hundred against Australia. KL Rahul is expected to fill the void left by the Delhi batsman’s absence at the top, and India will be buoyed by the fact that Rahul does better when opening the innings than when he bats lower down the order. While opening, the Karnataka batsman averages 56, and has one hundred and two fifties from seven innings.
The Indian top order will be up against Mohammad Amir, who has been in magnificent form in this tournament so far, picking up 10 wickets at a strike rate of 15.6. The 27-year-old dismissed India’s top three in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, and Pakistan skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed will be hopeful of a similar impact once again.
In fact, Amir should be delighted that India, following Dhawan’s injury, are likely to not have a single frontline left-handed batsman in their XI. The left-arm pacer has a career ODI average of 26.3 against right-handed batsmen while it drops to 37.4 against left-handers.
The Battle of the Batting All-Rounders
It’s no secret that Hardik Pandya’s batting has reached great heights this calendar year. As we saw in the game against Australia when India needed to kick on after a solid start, it is Pandya who is entrusted with the responsibility to get the run-rate moving.
That’s no surprise when you consider that the Surat-born all-rounder has the knack of wasting no time before getting into his groove. In fact, since the 2015 World Cup, only Glenn Maxwell has a higher strike-rate than Pandya in the first 20 balls of a batsman’s ODI innings.
His Pakistan counterpart Mohammad Hafeez, meanwhile, is in the twilight of his career but he’s having one of his best years in ODI cricket. He plays a different role compared to Pandya. Batting at number four has suited Hafeez’s game, as scores of 84 and 46 against England and Australia respectively in his last two innings show.
What’s most impressive about Hafeez though is his strike-rate in 2019. He is scoring 104.1 runs per 100 deliveries, his best strike-rate in any calendar year yet. The Professor, as he is popularly known, also has a good record against India, averaging 48.6 in 11 matches.
“Rain, Rain, Go Away!” has been the anthem of the World Cup over the last week, and there are rain showers expected in Manchester on Sunday evening. But if the forecast holds true, it is likely that we will get a result here.
Usually, the question is whether Manchester is red or blue as Manchester United and Manchester City battle for bragging rights in football. For once, on Sunday, it will be a question of whether Manchester will be blue or green, or whether the weather Gods make us endure a day without the colour of cricket.
Shikhar Dhawan’s injury means KL Rahul will open the innings. Who will replace Rahul at number four is the big question, with Vijay Shankar and Dinesh Karthik in contention for the spot.
Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Virat Kohli (c), Vijay Shankar, MS Dhoni (wk), Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah
On the back of a poor batting and fielding performance from Asif Ali, Haris Sohail could find a place in the XI once again. It’ll be surprising if Shadab Khan is not drafted back into the team for this encounter.
Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam, Mohammad Hafeez, Haris Sohail, Sarfaraz Ahmed (c, wk), Shoaib Malik, Shadab Khan, Wahab Riaz, Hasan Ali, Mohammad Amir.