CRICKET: THE GREAT CLASH

Published June 9, 2024
Never a dull moment when Pakistan and India face each other
Never a dull moment when Pakistan and India face each other

A new era in Pakistan cricket began three years ago, when the team secured its first-ever World Cup victory against India. This milestone win finally removed a long-standing burden, as Babar Azam and his men accomplished what previous Pakistani greats had not.

In a commanding performance during its 2021 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup opening game, Pakistan humiliated India with a 10-wicket triumph. Left-arm pacer Shaheen Afridi announced his arrival on the World Cup stage with a sensational first-over swing display, while Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan batted flawlessly to chase down the target without losing a wicket. This victory was nothing short of a lifeline for both Pakistan cricket fans and the team.

Ten months later, Pakistan repeated their success by defeating India in the Asia Cup, prompting Indian cricket experts to acknowledge that this Pakistani team is a formidable opponent, unlike past iterations that struggled to win World Cup matches against their arch-rivals.

A few months after that, Pakistan was on the brink of another significant victory against India in the T20 World Cup in Melbourne. However, Virat Kohli, the masterful Indian batter, played a once-in-a-lifetime innings to snatch victory from Pakistan’s grasp.

With the greatest rivalry in cricket set to unfurl at the ICC Mens’ T20 World Cup in New York tonight, Eos takes a look at what’s working and not working for arch-rivals Pakistan and India

Currently, the T20 World Cup head-to-head between Pakistan and India stands at 1-1 since 2020. Despite this intense rivalry, it has been eight years since an International Cricket Council (ICC) trophy returned to Asia, with Pakistan being the last Asian team to win an ICC trophy (Champions Trophy 2017). It’s been a decade since India last won an ICC title (Champions Trophy 2013), despite being one of the largest cricketing nations with the most lucrative T20 league.

Fans and experts alike are deeply disappointed by the recent lack of ICC trophies for Asian teams. Various factors have contributed to this drought, but one notable reason is the evolution of cricket into what is now called “modern cricket.”

This new era involves fast-paced play, heavy reliance on analytics, and strategic planning. Asian teams, particularly Pakistan and India, are aware of these changes but struggle to fully adapt their systems. Managing media scrutiny, player stardom and the pressures of social media, along with meeting the demands of modern cricket, remains a significant challenge for them.

Modern cricket has evolved into a high-risk game, where players are supposed to prioritise strategy over personal milestones such as centuries and fifties. Instead of taking the game deep, players are now expected to follow meticulously prepared strategies for each phase.

One area of concern for Pakistan is the T20 powerplay. While Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan have been a successful opening pair, their approach in the powerplay has been problematic. They play conservatively, to avoid losing wickets. But this cautious strategy means they miss out on capitalising on the powerplay’s fielding restrictions, where only two fielders are outside the circle.

In contrast, teams such as Australia and England start aggressively, maximising their scoring potential in the powerplay and gaining an early advantage.

To address their batting issues, Pakistan decided to split the Babar-Rizwan opening partnership by pairing the aggressive Saim Ayub with Rizwan. However, this pressure-driven decision failed to resolve the problem. Babar Azam’s move to No 3 meant that, if Saim Ayub were dismissed early, Babar would join Rizwan at the crease during the powerplay, essentially maintaining the original dynamic.

This undermined the intent behind breaking the opening pair. Moreover, the experiment with Saim Ayub did not meet the team management’s expectations and, in the final T20I against England, he was excluded from the playing XI. Consequently, Pakistan reverted to their original opening combination of Rizwan and Babar.

The strategy should have been more flexible: keeping an aggressive batter at one end and, if Saim Ayub gets out early, sending in another aggressive player, such as Fakhar Zaman, instead of Babar Azam.

Babar should only come in if Rizwan gets out early. If Rizwan stays at the crease, Babar should not come out to bat, as one batter of the same role is at the crease. This approach requires making tough decisions, particularly about not sending a top player, but it’s necessary to adapt to modern cricket’s demands and to maximise the powerplay advantage.

A similar issue exists in our neighbouring country, where India’s management also struggles to handle the pressure of player stardom. If we examine India’s playing XI in the 2021 T20 World Cup — where they lost by 10 wickets to Pakistan and failed to reach the semi-finals — and compare it to their line-up in the 2022 T20 World Cup, which saw another 10-wicket loss to England in the semi-finals, there are few changes.

Despite the wealth of talent showcased in the IPL, India has repeatedly fielded the same core players, without adapting to modern cricket’s demands.

Both Pakistan and India have suffered defeats against England and Australia in the last two T20 World Cups, yet neither team has effectively diagnosed or addressed their shortcomings. Pakistan, in particular, has shown impatience with players who could potentially solve these modern cricket challenges.

For instance, Mohammad Haris, a standout performer in the last T20 World Cup, has only played four games since then, despite being seen as a key component of the Pakistan T20 team. Similarly, Mohammad Wasim Jr, who performed brilliantly in the last two World Cups — the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia and the 2023 (ODI) Cricket World Cup in India — is now nowhere near the squad.

Such inconsistent selection and erratic decisions discourage players from adopting the high-risk, modern style of cricket, leading them to revert to outdated methods of play.

However, a match between Pakistan and India is always a showstopper, halting traffic and leading students to skip classes. This time, the clash has travelled to New York, a novel venue with unknown pitch conditions. Pakistan has recalled match-winners such as Mohammad Amir and Imad Wasim, while India will once again rely on stalwarts Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma.

Pakistan is still searching for its best XI, as the experiment with Saim Ayub as an opener has not produced the desired results. But shuffling the opening spot has created an imbalance, as when Babar Azam opens the innings, there is no other reliable batter left in the middle order. This vulnerability was evident in the recent collapse during the last T20 against England.

Adding to their concerns, Shadab Khan’s poor form in spin bowling is a significant issue, despite his past contributions in the last two T20 World Cups. Including mystery spinner Abrar Ahmed could strengthen the bowling attack, but would leave Pakistan one batter short. On the other hand, retaining Shadab might weaken their bowling line-up.

Consequently, Pakistan’s playing XI for today remains uncertain, with key questions still unanswered ahead of the T20 World Cup. Furthermore, two washed-out matches in England have disrupted Pakistan’s preparation for the tournament.

India’s batting order appears settled, with Yashasvi Jaiswal and Rohit Sharma opening the innings, and Jasprit Bumrah leading the bowling attack.

The last time Pakistan won an ICC trophy, Mohammad Amir’s devastating spell dismantled India’s top order. Shaheen Afridi mirrored this feat in the 2021 T20 World Cup. This time, Pakistan’s pace attack features both Amir and Shaheen, setting the stage for a thrilling showdown tonight. Overcast conditions could favour Pakistan’s swing bowlers, but India’s own swing experts, Arshdeep and Siraj, ensure a high-stakes clash.

The writer is a software engineer who employs data and statistics to dissect intricacies with precision and insight. X: @abubakarSays

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 9th, 2024

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