There have been many spectacular India-Pakistan matches, and there will be many more in the future even as the arch-rivals refrain from playing bilateral series against one another. But each time the two countries meet, usually in ICC tournaments, excitement reaches fever pitch, for few sporting rivalries are as contextually charged and intense.
India and Pakistan kick off Group 2's Super 12 stage of the 2021 T20 World Cup on Sunday, October 24. Exactly 14 years and one month after their historic meeting in the final of the inaugural T20 World Cup, the old foes meet again, this time in Dubai. India have been in the UAE for months now, with the Indian Premier League taking place in the Middle East. Pakistan are no strangers to the venue, having adopted it as their home for the majority of the decade.
Strangely enough, Pakistan come into the T20 World Cup in major turmoil after New Zealand and England pulled out of their tours of the country at the last minute, but are still favorites to progress to the semi-final stage. The third-ranked T20I team in the world, Pakistan have a balanced squad that generally knows how to win. Whether they can find a way to win against India and break their T20 World Cup hoodoo is a different matter altogether.
For India, Virat Kohli's first and last assignment as captain in the T20 World Cup will welcome a high-octane start against Pakistan. Kohli, the highest run-scorer in each of the last two editions of the T20 World Cup, has never been dismissed in the tournament's India-Pakistan matches. He comes into the clash in a patchy run of form though, and faces several key selection calls ahead of the game.
Nevertheless, fans of both India and Pakistan couldn't ask for a better start to what promises to be a riveting T20 World Cup.
T20 World Cup 2021: India and Pakistan eye early Group 2 advantage
Rivalry and its off-pitch context aside, India vs Pakistan is an ordinary game of cricket with two points at stake. In a comparatively easy Group 2 consisting of New Zealand, Scotland, Namibia and Afghanistan, the winner of this clash will take an early stride towards making the semi-finals.
India come into the contest with some serious selection dilemmas. Hardik Pandya's absence from the bowling crease has meant that Kohli has to decide between a third spinner, who could prove to be invaluable in the UAE, and a third pacer. With only Ravindra Jadeja and Jasprit Bumrah guaranteed to be part of the playing XI, three spots are up for grabs among Mohammed Shami, Shardul Thakur, Ravichandran Ashwin, Rahul Chahar, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Varun Chakravarthy.
KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma form a fearsome combination at the top of the order, one that will be rivaled by Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan. Azam and Rizwan have established themselves as arguably the best T20I opening pair at the moment, and if they can counter the threat posed by Bumrah and Co., they could set the platform for a massive Pakistan total.
However, Pakistan's middle order doesn't wear an entirely settled look. Fakhar Zaman, their best batter during the warm-up games, needs to be squeezed in there somewhere. The experience of Shoaib Malik and Mohammed Hafeez might prove to be invaluable in such a high-pressure game, but the duo have found consistency hard to come by recently. Shaheen Shah Afridi is the bonafide leader of the Pakistan bowling attack, and given India's suspected weakness against left-arm pacers, he will have a crucial role to play.
India are far from a perfect T20I side, but do Pakistan have the personnel to exploit their weaknesses? They lack world-class spinners - apart from Shadab Khan to a certain extent - and might not be able to exert a stranglehold over the middle overs. They have also been found wanting when Azam and Rizwan have failed to notch up a big opening partnership.
There's a reason India have held the wood over Pakistan at ICC events - their planning and execution has been spot-on throughout. The same can be expected to continue in Dubai, which is likely to offer a better pitch for batting than the Sharjah strips we've seen so far in the T20 World Cup.
Pakistan are as unpredictable as any other team in the competition, so ruling them out would be criminal. But it's tough to see them have the character to beat India on Sunday.
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