JUNE 17 — When it comes to international sporting rivalries, nothing really comes close to matching India against Pakistan at cricket.
If you don’t believe me, consider this: they are respectively the second and sixth largest countries in the world by population (1.2 billion in India; 200 million in Pakistan).
Furthermore, the two huge countries have an exceptionally tense relationship, with a religious divide (Hindu India, Muslim Pakistan) and a long-running dispute over the sovereignty of Kashmir creating an extremely antagonistic situation which periodically threatens to escalate into full-blown war.
Then take into account the fact that cricket isn’t just a national sport in the two countries: it is an obsession, with top players idolised to the extent that they are often thrust into the world of politics when their careers end: iconic Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar was nominated to parliament in 2012, and ex-Pakistan captain Imran Khan founded the country’s second-biggest political party.
Those factors conspire to make any cricket showdown between the adversaries a must-watch affair, with a worldwide television of a billion (yes, that’s a BILLION) reported for their meeting in the 2011 World Cup semi-final.
This weekend, the latest instalment of their rivalry will be staged at The Oval ground in London, where the two nations will go head to head in the ICC Trophy Final, the first time they have met in a tournament final for nearly ten years.
And considering the large expat population of Pakistanis and Indians in the UK, there will certainly be no shortage of atmosphere as a corner of London is briefly turned into a blend of Mumbai and Karachi.
It’s no surprise that India are there. They are the reigning title holders and have consistently been one of the strongest teams in the world for years, boasting arguably the game’s best batsman (captain Virat Kohli) and best two slow bowlers (Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin).
Although they had an unexpected wobble in the group phase against Sri Lanka, the Indian team have otherwise progressed serenely through this tournament and their semi-final demolition of underdogs Bangladesh on Thursday was a clear reminder of how good they are.
Pakistan, however, as very much surprise finalists after exceeding all expectations to proceed through the group stage and then shock hosts England in Wednesday’s semi-final.
I generally don’t like national stereotypes but, having played with a number of them for my club side, I can attest there is something uniquely mercurial about Pakistani cricketers, who can fluctuate between excruciatingly frustrating and staggeringly brilliant in the blink of an eye.
At times, many Pakistani players can look disinterested and unengaged, and they consequently often lose very heavily. But when they are ‘on’, they play with an intensity and confidence that can prove to be unbeatable.
This tournament started badly for Pakistan with a heavy group stage defeat against none other than India. At that point, with games against dangerous South Africa and Sri Lanka to come, their prospects looked extremely bleak.
But showing once again the famed Pakistani unpredictability, they roared back to win both of those contests, including a nervy but eventually well-executed run chase against Sri Lanka in a game which decided who would progress to the last four.
Nevertheless, Pakistan were still heavy underdogs as they faced England in the semi-finals, with the hosts widely assumed to be far superior in all aspects. But those predictions were totally overturned by a brilliant Pakistan performance led by the revelation of the tournament, 23 year-old bowler Hasan Ali.
Coming into the attack at a crucial phase of the game midway through the England innings, Ali was glorious: he was enthusiastic and energetic, but also focussed and thoughtful, bowling with great intensity but also great intelligence.
In taking three crucial wickets for the third consecutive game, Ali succeeded in completely derailing the home team’s efforts and he was the major factor in restricting them to a score of just 211 — around 100 less than they would have expected — before the Pakistani batsmen comfortably finished off what their bowlers had started to reach the target with ease.
Despite that superb display, Pakistan are still finding themselves highly unfancied as they head into Sunday’s final, with most bookmakers rating their chances of success somewhere around 30per cent.
The logical outcome would indeed by an Indian victory. They possess a brilliant batting line-up with skipper Kohli joined by red-hot Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Darwan, the two highest run scorers in the competition.
When Pakistan are around, though, the expected rarely happens and if any bowling attack can slow down India’s batsmen, it is theirs — especially with their most consistent bowler, Mohammad Amir, likely to return to the team after injury.
The game will probably come down to who comes out on top between India’s batsmen and Pakistan’s bowlers, and the battle of Ali and Amir against Dhawan, Sharma and Kohli will be compelling — especially in the knowledge that a billion people are watching. If you want to be part of the biggest sporting event of 2017, try to join them.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.