MIRPUR - India and Pakistan have won one match each, and have each lost a close game against Sri Lanka. It's a cliché to call this India-Pakistan meeting a virtual semi-final, but that, under the circumstances, might well ring true. Neither side has performed to anything like full capacity so far. India's bowlers didn't look particularly threatening even against Bangladesh, and Pakistan's top-order tardiness nearly cost them against Afghanistan. Both teams made match-turning errors against Sri Lanka.
With back-to-back victories over Pakistan and India, Sri Lanka have virtually assured themselves of a berth in the final of the Asia Cup, and now it's a two-way battle between the traditional rivals to be the other finalists in the five-nation tournament.
Both teams go into the match on an even keel, a win and one loss each, but the defending champions Pakistan have a slight edge as they have a bonus point in their kitty from their win against associate nation Afghanistan. India registered a facile victory over hosts Bangladesh in their tournament opener but went down to Sri Lanka by two wickets last night. Pakistan were also beaten by a narrow 12-run margin by the same opponents in their opening match of the Asia Cup.
Ordinarily, as has been the case throughout the recent history of the two sides, this would be billed as a clash between India's batsmen and Pakistan's bowlers. Those are still the respective teams' strong suits, but an inexperienced middle-order might put India at a disadvantage in that particular mini-contest. Pakistan will also be playing an India side that could be a little low on confidence, having won only one out of their last nine completed ODI matches.
A lot of Pakistan's batsmen looked good out in the middle in their first two games, but nearly all of them threw their wickets away with silly shots or, in the case of their captain Misbah-ul-Haq, a comedy run-out. After their match against Afghanistan, Misbah said the batsmen couldn't afford to keep repeating the same mistakes, but indicated he would keep faith in the same batting order. Fawad Alam waits in the wings, but it might be a little unfair on Sharjeel Khan or Sohaib Maqsood to single one of them out for two displays of collective carelessness.
Zaheer Abbas, Pakistan's chief cricket consultant, said on Saturday that the rash shots might have been cases of the batsmen looking to get out of jail on a sluggish Fatullah pitch. The ball, he said, was likely to come on a little quicker in Mirpur.
Pakistan's players trained on Saturday, while the Indians - barring Varun Aaron and Cheteshwar Pujara - didn't. Aaron bowled to a dummy batsman, with a circular target attached to the net behind off stump, while Pujara faced a group of net bowlers who were barely club class. Of the two, Aaron seems likelier to play against Pakistan, with India perhaps looking to give their middle-order combination one more chance before making any changes. With no one talking to the media, though, this remains pure conjecture.
Aaron hardly covered himself in glory against Bangladesh, and was left out for the allrounder Stuart Binny for the Sri Lanka game. Binny, in that match, was out for a duck and only bowled four overs. More than their respective displays, the shift in venue might prompt India to go back to having a genuine third seamer. Spinners have more or less similar records in Fatullah and Mirpur, but the quicker bowlers have done distinctly better at the Shere Bangla National Stadium. India have Aaron and Ishwar Pandey to choose between for that third seamer's slot, but the amount of time Aaron spent bowling on Saturday suggests he might have a role to play. It is their bowling spearheaded, Umar Gul and left-arm pacer Junaid Khan who would be relied upon heavily by Pakistan. But their spin department also has enough resources with the trio of Saeed Ajmal, Hafeez and Afridi to challenge the Indian batsmen. It remains to be seen how India turn it around against their traditional foes tomorrow but Pakistan, on their part, would not spare an inch when the two clash for the first time after their meeting in the ICC Champions Trophy, which Dhoni's men had won in a rain-affected match. Given the fact that dew plays a role towards the evening, both the teams will be looking to bowl first after winning the toss. With the ongoing tournament experiencing a cold response, the contest between the arch-rivals is expected to raise the spirits.
PAKISTAN: Misbah-ul-Haq (c), Sharjeel Khan, Ahmed Shehzad, Mohammad Hafeez, Sohaib Maqsood, Umar Akmal (wk), Shahid Afridi, Anwar Ali, Umar Gul, Saeed Ajmal, Junaid Khan, Mohammad Talha, Abdur Rehman, Fawad Alam.
INDIA: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Stuart Binny, Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Cheteshwar Pujara, Amit Mishra, Varun Aaron and Ishwar Pandey.