Kolkata: The safety net will not be in vogue again, the parachute will not be deployed anymore. The crushing defeat in Nagpur has ensured that, with the only lifeline available already used up, India’s next fall will be a freefall with drastic consequences.
This is hardly the scenario India, or its teeming millions of fans, will have envisaged a few days back, at the start of its Super 10 campaign against New Zealand in the ICC World Twenty20 2016. The general belief was that India would grab early momentum and hope to ride its wave at the iconic Eden Gardens, against best buddies and fiercest rivals Pakistan.
Instead, it’s Pakistan who finds itself far better placed against a team it has failed to conquer across ten showdowns in the 50-over World Cup and the World T20 combined. Pakistan’s late arrival in India stemming and the subsequent switch of this mega clash to the City of Joy is no more than a distant memory now. Pakistan has embraced Kolkata as much as the Kolkatans have embraced the players, and in some ways, given that the team has been here for five days, it is almost as if it is Shahid Afridi’s men that are the home team.
India’s immediate task is to extend its hegemony over Pakistan in World Cups if it is to keep itself in the hunt for a last-four place. It isn’t a task beyond MS Dhoni’s team, which sent Pakistan tumbling to 83 all out in admittedly vastly differing conditions in Mirpur last month – but for that, it must excise the potentially debilitating psychological after-effects of the Nagpur drubbing inflicted by New Zealand spin.
India prides itself on its bouncebackability. Never will that trait be tested more seriously than on Saturday (March 18). Pakistan is a dangerous front-runner, which can get on a searing roll when it starts a competition in sprightly fashion. It has begun this tournament as spectacularly as any other side with a commanding rout of Bangladesh, and like Waqar Younis pointed out, is approaching a World Cup game against India without pressure of any sort for perhaps the first time.
“This is the first time that the pressure is more on India – not arising from victory or defeat at the hands of Pakistan but because they have lost the last game, they must be worried that they can go out – playing in your own country, such a huge tournament,” said the Pakistan coach. “I am sure they are feeling the heat. It is an added pressure on them, not on us. I have been a cricketer all these years and it is impossible that India won’t be feeling the pressure. We are hopefully going to take advantage of that.”
As tempting as it might be to dismiss those remarks as mind-games, India will not be unaware of how strewn with obstacles the path it has chosen to take is. Pakistan clearly has the superior bowling reserves with the reintegrated Mohammad Amir, the towering Mohammad Irfan and the explosive Wahab Riaz forming an all left-arm pace core that will examine technique and character. Amir in particular had India in sixes and sevens at the Asia Cup before the composure and authority of Virat Kohli pulled India home, but the host must find other batting heroes to ease the burden on the No. 3’s shoulders.
The Eden strip – different from the ones used for the two previous games at this ground – will not play anywhere like the one in Nagpur did. It should be a pretty decent batting surface to start off with and is expected to slow down a little as the night wears on. Conventional wisdom would suggest bat-first, but there is potential for dew later on, which will then make gripping the ball whilst bowling second a difficult proposition. A slightly tricky call for the captains to make, then.
Pakistan has wonderful memories of Eden, having lost just one and won five of the 11 Tests and One-Day Internationals combined against India – this is the first T20I between the teams here – but India doesn’t have to dig deep for some special deeds of its own. It was here that, among other things, Rohit Sharma recorded the highest score in ODI cricket, and while past success doesn’t guarantee more runs and wickets, it does offer that immeasurable feel-good factor that India’s redoubtable batting line-up ought to be in desperate need of.
Given the way the teams have started this tournament, and the fact that Pakistan has played here twice in the last five days, Afridi’s team will hold a marginal edge, particularly with the skipper too having worked his way back into runs and wickets. That’s a huge comedown for the pre-tournament favourite; Indiae has little option but to extend its unbeaten World Cup streak against Pakistan to 11 if the rest of its Super 10 campaign is to hold more than mere academic interest.
India: MS Dhoni (captain and wicketkeeper), R Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Shikhar Dhawan, Harbhajan Singh, Ravindra Jadeja, Virat Kohli, Mohammed Shami, Pawan Negi, Ashish Nehra, Hardik Pandya, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Yuvraj Singh.
Pakistan: Shahid Afridi (captain), Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Irfan, Sharjeel Khan, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Sami, Khalid Latif, Mohammad Amir, Umar Akmal, Sarfraz Ahmed (wicketkeeper), Imad Wasim, Anwar Ali, Khurram Manzoor.
Match starts at 7.30 PM IST