Nothing can be more lip-smacking, adrenaline-pumping and nail biting than the thrilling prospect of India taking on their arch rivals Pakistan. Let's face it - it can't get bigger or better that this one clash. We may be playing them in the World Cup after a good eight years, and the statistics too back India's supremacy, but Pakistan is far from looking either perplexed or bogged down by pressure; in fact, they look confident enough to turn the tables.
While India may have started as the firm favourites, the hiccups thereafter, especially during the knock-out stage, did mar the spirits somewhat. The celebrated batting line-up looked clueless towards the end, while bowling seemed to lack teeth. The fielding too looked curiously below par for any competitive international cricket. Just when it was looking like all was drifting away, the team turned the corner. The batting came into its own against Australia, the bowling has looked efficient in the last 2-3 games and we somehow managed to field better too.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has managed to amaze all and sundry, not just with the way they’ve performed, but more importantly, with the way they’ve resurrected like a phoenix. Just weeks before the tournament, they lost the core of the team, courtesy spot-fixing. The selectors added to their share of woes by announcing the team and not the skipper. Afridi was named only at the eleventh hour. But Afridi and Co. didn’t let any of that effect their performance.
Now, that both India and Pakistan are gearing up for what is being touted as ‘the final before the final’, here’s what should keep the Indian think-tank busy.
It didn't require rocket science to arrive at the clear-cut decision of preparing a slow turner at Ahmedabad against Australians. This one though is not going to be so simple. If you prepare a track which assists the spinners, then Pakistan has better quality spinners in their ranks to exploit the conditions. Also, we must not discount their ability to play the turning ball. But these guys are not all that good against pace, you may think. A seamer-friendly wicket then appears to be the best bet, especially since Mohali is perhaps the best track in the country to produce the surface which has both bounce and carry for the quicker men.
Yes, Pakistan batsmen are not so proficient against pace bowling - but we must look at the resources at our disposal. Our best bet is Zaheer Khan who's in sublime form, but what about the rest? Dhoni seems to have lost his faith in Munaf's abilities with the new ball and the way he bowled against Australia, you can't blame Dhoni either. In fact, Nehra and Sreesanth are better equipped than Munaf at exploiting the conditions, but both have bowled a paltry 13.4 and 5 overs respectively in the tournament so far - not ideal preparation for a crunch encounter. And it's worth looking at the opposition's bowling attack too before taking the call. Australia's apparent lack of teeth in the spin department made it easy, but Pakistan has one of the most balanced attacks in the World Cup. If you prepare a wicket to assist the quicks, they have Gul, Akhtar, Riaz and Razzak to exploit the conditions and if you prepare a turner, they have Afridi (leading wicket taker in the tournament), Abdur Rehman, Saaed Ajmal and Hafeez to come good.
Interestingly though, what Pakistan has in the bowling department, they lack in the batting department i.e. talent and depth. Their opening combination could easily be one of the poorest in the competition. Their middle order looks decent but the fact that none of their batsmen have scored a century yet tells you something about their effectiveness. Their lower order comprising of Afridi and Razzak is yet to fire. Against that, our batting is perhaps the best in the world.
In my opinion, our best chances would be on a good batting surface to both nullify their bowling prowess and aid our supreme batting. It’s worth putting pressure on our batting to win us the crucial encounter.
'Don't fix it till it's broken' or 'Never change the winning combination' are the most redundant phrases in sport. In today's fast changing world, experience could well be your worst enemy, for, at times, it keeps you in the past and doesn't let you change with the times. And sport doesn't follow a set pattern. What worked for you yesterday might trigger your downfall tomorrow. Hence it's wise to keep your options open and decisions fluid.
With regards to the playing XI for the game against Pakistan, I advocate at least one change if not more. Munaf must make way for Nehra or Sreesanth because against a brittle Pakistan top-order, you must attack from the outset. Using Ashwin with the new ball was brilliant against Australia but may not work against teams from the sub-continent. Pace bowlers must make use of the new Kookaburra to extract movement either in the air or off the pitch or perhaps both, if available. There may also be a temptation to play 3 quick bowlers and a spinner against Pakistan, but we must resist that temptation. Yes, they are not good against pace and are proficient against spin but in my opinion it's wise to play your best four bowlers unless the track is heavily suited for one specific skill set, spin or pace. Our best bowling combination may be Zaheer, Ashish, Ashwin and Bhajji.
Sachin couldn't sleep well for a fortnight before the game against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup. Gambhir doesn't sleep properly every time he has to play against Pakistan the following day. What is it about the game against Pakistan which brings everyone to the edge? Pressure, however much you deny, is something which you put on yourself. Scoreboard tells you the bare facts, but how we interpret those facts is completely our choice. Similarly, a cricket match is just a game of cricket but how we interpret the importance of that game determines the enormity of pressure. Every time the Indian team takes the field to play a game of cricket, the pressure of expectations of a billion people weighs on their mind. And if the opposition happens to be Pakistan, it goes several notches higher.
Yes, there's a lot of pressure, but it's important to keep things in perspective. If we want to win the World Cup and also become the dominant side in the world, we must start looking beyond Pakistan just like Australia did with England. Yes, beating Pakistan might still be dear to us but it still should not be the be-all-and-end-all of the story.