Temperature rises in the desert as India-Pakistan face-off in the T20 World Cup

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DUBAI: When the teams square off in a desert shootout that will resemble their encounters in the 1980s and 1990s, but with roles reversed, India can cement their status as major title contenders and reassert their World Cup dominance over Pakistan.

Virat Kohli’s team, which plays their first Group 2 game in Dubai on Sunday is widely regarded as significantly superior to their opponents with each player having played in the Indian Premier League in the UAE. That should put them well ahead of Pakistan’s Babar Azam led team.

However, the build-up and intolerable anticipation created every time the sub-continent rivals meet means that factors other than cricketing logic take over, resulting in the moniker of favourites with a caveat.

The match is taking place amid rising political tensions between the two countries, and this tie is taking place during terror attacks in Kashmir. Political leaders had urged that India, which had moved their event to the UAE due to the pandemic, break the tie.

India will also want to avoid becoming distracted within the camp. Kohli has declared that he will step aside as India’s T20 captain after the competition, to reclaim his best batting form. Others, including all-rounder Hardik Pandya (whose bowling fitness is still being examined), will begin the season as a hitter only.

As a result, Pakistan should stand to gain nothing. However, the pressure will be equally strong on Babar Azam, the club’s leading batsman, whose stature will soar if he can lead the team to victory.

India would aim to concentrate solely on the task at hand to prepare for future conflicts.

For India to overcome the fear of losing to Pakistan and buckling under duress, it has needed consistent performances over the last two decades. The supposed disadvantage of performing in front of a partisan Sharjah audience is no longer an issue. IPL matches are being held in the cosmopolitan city of Dubai. Chetan Sharma, the man who hammered Javed Miandad for his last-ball six in 1986, is now India’s chairman of selectors. Furthermore, Pakistan will have to end a 29-year saga that began with their first setback in the 1991-2 World Cup, which they went on to win.

Even a day before the match, the excitement in Dubai is still rising. The launch of Ain Dubai, the world’s tallest observation wheel, is causing traffic congestion in this area. Tourists are greeted by welcome notes from the Dubai Expo, not World Cup posters. Despite the limitations imposed by Covid rules, there are enough Indian and Pakistani ex-pats in the UAE to fill 70% of the 25,000-seat Dubai stadium. Many late ticket buyers are still willing to pay 3,000 AED (about Rs. 60,000) or more to see the action live.

The World Cup schedule has been a well-kept secret, and until cricket takes over and the power-hitters start lighting up the sky, it will be up to this blockbuster to help generate excitement for the event on neutral ground. Due to the commercial pull of the ICC, then-CEO Dave Richardson acknowledged in 2016 that the global organisation wants to keep India and Pakistan in the same group.

By qualifying for the Super 12 (both in India’s Group 2), Scotland and Namibia have once again demonstrated that given a chance, tiny teams can upset the pecking order in ICC competitions, particularly T20.

The game’s current flagship event is being held after a five-year hiatus for a variety of reasons. Most modern-day captains don’t have a long career ahead of them. Virat Kohli has had an exceptional run of form. Even when he led India to victory over Pakistan at Eden Gardens in 2016, he had not yet become limited-overs captain.

Shahid Afridi, Pakistan’s mercurial captain at the time, was in charge. The Azam-led team is far more modern, having honed their skills in the Pakistan Super League. PSL currently attracts a diverse range of international talent, and Pakistani batters have honed their ability to improvise to fit the demands of T20 cricket to the point where Azam refers to it as their strength. With Shaheen Shah Afridi as proof, their pace arsenal is always lethal.

In the Indian camp, there is a peaceful stillness. MS Dhoni, India’s captain in the recent T20 World Cup, has been appointed as a coach. Dhoni’s influence was clear when Kohli announced even before the warm-ups that the playing eleven against Pakistan had been selected. Dhoni was fresh off leading Chennai Super Kings to IPL victory. Settled picks and defined responsibilities would help his team adapt better if there were enough game-changers on the roster.

When challenged about his choice to announce ahead of time that this event would be his last as India’s T20 captain during the pre-match media conference, Kohli became a little combative. “I have described myself quite honestly and frankly, and if people believe there is something more to it that they are not being told, I feel fairly horrible for them,” he stated.

He downplayed the importance of facing Pakistan, whose quality he lauded, preferring to concentrate on India’s preparation.

“We’re also quite confident in our execution.” In the IPL, the guys have been playing a lot of T20 cricket, and everyone is doing well, which is good for the squad. Now it’s all about execution in the center, which everyone believes they can do. We’ve already discussed the need for role clarity. We think we’ve done a good job of preparing.”

When asked how close Pandya was to bowling, Kohli did not divulge his playing eleven but made it obvious that he would be the designated No.6, simply as a hitter for the time being.

“There are specialists that do that job in world cricket” (No.6). Even when the chips are down, he can pitch a long inning in that manner. For us, that is far more valuable than pressuring him to do something he is not yet ready for. He’s driven and eager to bowl a few of overs for us, and when that happens, the team balance improves even more.”

India will seek to obtain a few overs from their sixth bowler, one of whom may be Kohli, who bowled two overs with his part-time seamers in the warm-up triumph over Australia.

India will just have to choose between three seamers and an additional spinner. When the moment comes to reveal their riddle, look for Varun Chakravarthy, Rahul Chahar’s quickish leg-spin, or both.

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