Pakistan versus India beckons

There are multiple ways in which Pakistan’s fortunes at the World Cup can be assessed after they upset tournament favourites, England, last week. Unpredictability reigns supreme. The God factor intervened in what could possibly have been a potential victory against Sri Lanka as the rain washed away any possibility of play. Then, Pakistan lost to Australia whilst chasing 307 by 41 runs. Nothing could have been done about the washout in Bristol, but Pakistan chose an attacking option by winning the toss and putting Australia into bat. The initial momentum built by Mohammad Aamir, who let his experience do the talking and obtained great figures of 30/5 in his quota of 10 overs, could not be sustained at the other end. Bowlers chose not to stick to their lines, and the length strategies were wayward. From 189-1 in 28.3 overs, Australia were reduced to 307 all out as the bowlers came back at the tail end of the innings, impressively. The decision to not play Shadab Khan was however a defensive option made in lieu of the pitch conditions and it backfired. Pakistan lost Fakhar Zaman for nought while chasing and he is due a big innings soon. However, promising starts by Imam ul Haq, 53 though sluggish, Babar Azam, 30 who was middling the ball and looking potent, Mohammad Hafeez, 46 and Sarfraz Ahmed’s 40, could not be transformed into sustained match-winning knocks. The short ball, and weak shot selection, were once again the undoing of established Pakistani batsmen, and this thread could prove to be problematic in the large scheme of things while the tournament now moves into its latter stages. There was a slight chance of a fightback by the tail, including promising cameos by Hassan Ali and Wahab Riaz, but it was not meant to be at the end. The team management and Micky Arthur, in particular, need to focus on the psychological dimension because lapses in concentration are costing Pakistan dearly, and some of the mistakes in fielding, batting and bowling, are too elementary to be overlooked. The team needs to act like a unit in winning, and not, losing. At any rate, the Australian game reflects that there is fight in the boys and that they are no pushovers.

Off to the most hotly anticipated game this Sunday against India. Pakistan have never beaten India in a World Cup game, however have won 74 ODIs against India whilst losing 56, in all. Pakistan operationalised a devastating defeat of India in the ICC Champions Trophy final whilst being the underdogs. However, India have won the last 4 out of 5 head to head ODI encounters between the two countries, including winning twice in the Asia Cup. At Old Trafford, Manchester, India have won three out of 8 matches played, whilst Pakistan have won two out of eight.  India have started strongly, beating South Africa and Australia, convincingly, and are the second-favourites to win the World Cup outright. The key contests will be Mohammad Aamir against the Indian openers, who might not have yet gotten over how he overpowered them, along with Hassan Ali and Shadab Khan, in the Champions trophy final. The Indian batting order, on its day, is one of the, if not the strongest in the world with Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and Hardik Pandya all in great nick in the earlier games. The Indian bowling attack boasts the nippy Jasprit Bhumrah, the swing of Bhuwaneshwar Kumar, and the left arm - right arm spin combination of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendea Chahal, all of whom can be match-winners on their day. By the time this goes into writing, India would have played New Zealand and therefore, would be done with most of their difficult matches (with England still to play), whilst the game is of paramount importance to Pakistan in the context of their low position in the table and threat of being knocked out of the race for the semi-finals looming. The lowest net-run-rate does not help Pakistan’s hopes, either. While the Indians possess the more balanced squad in comparison with Pakistan, anything can happen in the high pressure situations that arise in cricket’s most popular rivalry, in terms of the massive audience it draws. Relations between the two nations have been recently fraught with tension, and cricket provides an arena where a thawing of the relations could be observed if the spirit of the game is maintained. As passions rise high, an outpour of nationalistic and jingoistic sentiments come to the forefront with disappointed fans being reduced burning effigies of players and smashing TV screens. Often the online discourse between spectators from both nations turns ugly and it must be asserted that passions ought to be regularised by the great force of good reason. Cricket is merely a game at the end of the day, and should be treated as such, but the cricketing arena sometimes becomes a direct reflection of national pride in the subcontinent.

In any case, the round-robin stage dictates that this is a long tournament and teams that might not have gotten off to the best starts might still find a way out of the initial mess by having self-belief and the confidence to peak at the right time. The race for the semi-finals is on. The Indian game is a must-win from the Pakistani point of view. With New Zealand and South Africa still to play, teams whose fast bowlers have troubled the Pakistani batting in recent times, the Pakistani cricket team needs to play with clearheadedness and self-control as there is no better way to raise the morale of the supporters than by registering a win against your biggest rivals.

In other happenings, the ICC has been managing a public relations exercise after three matches were washed away in the last week, and there are no reserve days  in such instances in the itinerary. The fairness of the round-robin stage can be called into question, and voices have risen in some quarters. ICC chairman Dave Richardson claims that “factoring in a reserve day for every match would significantly increase the length of the tournament and, practically, would be extremely complex to deliver.

“It would impact pitch preparation, team recovery and travel days, accommodation and venue availability, tournament staffing, volunteer and match officials’ availability, broadcast logistics and very importantly the spectators, who in some instances have travelled hours to be at the game.” He also mentioned that up-to 1200 members of staff are required on site to deliver a match. The uplift would be too costly, and it makes sense from a business point of view, but some teams could be more hard done by the weather than others, as Bangladesh have started contesting. Cricket these days is primarily a rat-race for TV rights and advertisements, and all stakeholders have to be taken on board. But whether logistical concerns should trump concerns about the equality of chances provided to each team in instances where nature intervenes, remains a question in history. Was this the right time of the year to have the cricket world cup in England? The forthcoming Ashes series surely pushed things back, a bit too much, did it not?

The writer is a faculty member at the Department of Political Science at Forman Christian College University.

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