Big picture: Face-to-face in ODIs after four years
If someone tells you there are bigger rivalries than India vs Pakistan at the 2023 Asia Cup, do not trust them.
Of late, the Afghanistan vs Pakistan and Sri Lanka vs Bangladesh games might have been spicier on the field, and nastier off it, but the history – both cricketing and otherwise – and the quality of the players make India vs Pakistan arguably the biggest rivalry in world cricket. That they rarely face each other these days makes every match a highly anticipated one.
You will have to go all the way back to the 2019 World Cup to see what happened when they last met in an ODI. The famous Fakhar Zaman hundred, and the infamous Jasprit Bumrah no-ball, in the 2017 Champions Trophy final might be six years in the past but since then, the two teams have played only three ODIs against each other.
And that is also one of the reasons why it’s not easy to say who the favourites are for Saturday’s game in Pallekele.
In the past, it has been a battle between Pakistan’s bowlers and India’s batters. While that will be the contest this time as well, with Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf testing Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill and Virat Kohli, there is a lot more to it with the ODI World Cup just over a month away.
The Asia Cup was supposed to mark the return of Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul. While Iyer has been declared fit, Rahul is yet to attain full fitness, and that gives Ishan Kishan another opportunity. Kishan scored three successive half-centuries in the West Indies, but they all came at the top of the order. With Rohit back now, Kishan may have to give up the opening slot.
Bumrah, another key player for India, made a comeback during the Ireland T20Is. Before that series, Bumrah had said that he was prepared to bowl ten overs. Saturday’s game, weather permitting as there is a rain threat, will test Bumrah’s claim.
For Pakistan, their captain Babar Azam is in red-hot form, having scored a superlative 151 against Nepal in the tournament opener, but Fakhar’s lean run could be a concern. Since his three successive hundreds – including an unbeaten 180 – against New Zealand, Fakhar has managed only 139 in the next seven innings. But both Pakistan and India know how destructive he can be. Moreover, Pakistan have the cushion of a long batting line-up, something that India lack.
India WLWLL (last five ODIs, most recent first)
In the spotlight: Shreyas Iyer and Shaheen Shah Afridi
In the last few months, many, including Rohit, have said that India have a No. 4 problem. But with Shreyas Iyer returning, that is no longer true. In fact, in Iyer, India have one of the best No. 4s in world cricket. Since the end of the 2019 World Cup, Iyer has scored 805 runs at No. 4, at an average of 47.35 and a strike rate of 94.37. From the ten teams that will be participating at the 2023 ODI World Cup, no No. 4 has a better average, or more hundreds than Iyer’s two. Last year, he also worked on his weakness against the short ball. India will just hope he makes a trouble-free return.
Shaheen Shah Afridi running in with a brand-new white ball is one of the best sights in modern-day cricket, but only if you are not the one facing him. Despite not looking his best against Nepal, he picked up two wickets in his first over. He even went off the field briefly after his five-over spell, but the Pakistan team management was quick to clarify it was only to do with Multan’s heat. So far, Shaheen has played only three international matches against India; twice he was wicketless but on the third occasion, at the 2021 T20 World Cup, he bowled a match-winning spell of 3 for 31. How he performs on Saturday could define this match as well.
Team news: What will India’s pace attack look like?
India need to take some tough calls. If they pick Shardul Thakur to lengthen their batting line-up, it would leave just two spots for frontline seamers (assuming Kuldeep Yadav is a certainty). In that case, Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj are likely to get the nod ahead of Mohammed Shami and Prasidh Krishna.
India (probable): 1 Rohit Sharma (capt), 2 Shubman Gill, 3 Virat Kohli, 4 Shreyas Iyer, 5 Ishan Kishan (wk), 6 Hardik Pandya, 7 Ravindra Jadeja, 8 Shardul Thakur/Mohammed Shami, 9 Kuldeep Yadav, 10 Mohammed Siraj, 11 Jasprit Bumrah
Pakistan can consider bringing in Faheem Ashraf for Mohammad Nawaz. But given India are expected to have five right-hand batters in their top six, they may not do so.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Fakhar Zaman, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Babar Azam (capt), 4 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 5 Agha Salman, 6 Iftikhar Ahmed, 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Mohammad Nawaz, 9 Shaheen Shah Afridi, 10 Naseem Shah, 11 Haris Rauf
Pitch and conditions: Rain threatens delayed start
The match will be played on a fresh pitch but if it behaves anything like the Sri Lanka-Bangladesh one, with help for both seamers and spinners, good luck to the batters. There’s a forecast of rain, though, from early morning till mid-afternoon, which could delay the start.