Must we succumb to building this game up beyond the point of hyperbole? Despite the fact that one side so heavily outguns the other in just about every department imaginable? Despite the fact that India and Pakistan have never played a World Cup game that has produced a finish to match the needle? Despite the fact that the game might not even happen, with an unfavourable forecast in Manchester beginning to take a turn for the worse?
Yes, we must. There’s no avoiding it, and perhaps no reason to. This contest may not have produced as many high-quality cricket matches as you might expect from a rivalry of this intensity, but, with more eyeballs on this match than the final itself, cricket can ill-afford to turn its nose up to the casual fan base that tunes in to India vs Pakistan. It was the most anticipated game of the tournament when the fixtures were announced – perhaps indeed when the tournament format was announced – with Steve Elworthy revealing that the ICC had had 400,000 applications for tickets, and that they “could have packed out Wembley four times over”.
But now to the cricket itself. India might have begun the tournament late, but they haven’t exactly been eased in, with their first three games scheduled against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The third was washed out, but resounding wins in the other two mean they have cemented their position as co-favourites for the title, perhaps even edging ahead of England given the dominance of their displays. They have a pace attack that would be the envy of Pakistan – imagine saying that at any other point in these two countries’ histories – combined with the twin spin threat of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav to keep the middle overs tighter than any other team does. They front up to a Pakistan who haven’t quite figured out their best eleven yet, and will go into this game having to make a decision that potentially leaves them a batsman light.
There is no escaping the fact Pakistan are unpredictable, and India will be professional enough to be cognisant of that. Sarfaraz Ahmed’s side have lost 12 of their last 13 completed ODIs, but it is notable that the win came last week against England when it really mattered, having been blanked by the same side in a bilateral series last month. The top three all average above 50 – though Fakhar Zaman’s recent form is a mild concern – and while the pace attack isn’t quite the threat they would like it to be, a resurgent Mohammad Amir may look to torment India’s top order once more. Shadab Khan, set to return after being dropped against Australia in a move that didn’t quite work out, is one of the few that matches his Indian counterparts for ability, and the two sides’ last meeting at an ICC tournament in England, which produced the heaviest-ever win in a game between these two teams, is one Pakistan will look to seek inspiration from.
For India, the challenge will be to rise above the emotions of a derby game, while Pakistan must try and frame it as such. Stripped bare of emotions, the gulf between the two sides is a gaping chasm. With the balance tipping towards India each time the two sides play – India hammered Pakistan in the recent Asia Cup twice, which is more reflective of the trend than the Champions Trophy final – Virat Kohli’s men will look to approach this as just any other match, because the pressure of viewing it through the prism of history will only play into Pakistan’s hands. But then again, the mental baggage swings the other way, too; Pakistan have never once beaten India in a World Cup match, even in the years they were unquestionably the better of the two sides. Were they to turn all that on its head in a year when it looks less likely than ever before, this World Cup might just find the spark it has so plaintively awaited in its opening fortnight.
India WWLLL (Last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Much is made of Rohit Sharma‘s third-ball lbw to Mohammad Amir in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, and his second-ball dismissal to the same bowler in the same fashion in Bangladesh in the Asia Cup in 2016. What isn’t mentioned, however, is that on the other three occasions that the two have met since Amir’s return, Rohit has scores of 91, 52 and 111*. To say he’d be apprehensive about facing Amir is a product borne out of selective memory, but there’s no overstating the importance of that battle. India, who rely on a gun top order, are without Rohit’s usual opener Shikhar Dhawan, making his wicket even more prized for Pakistan. It will matter not a jot to them if Amir takes it or not, but on current form, he looks like the bowler Rohit – and indeed India – should be most wary of. Rohit, however, started off the tournament with 122* and 57, so perhaps it is Pakistan who should feel forewarned.
Rohit Sharma curbed his natural instincts to finish the job for India Getty Images
The most gushing – and at the same time damaging – compliment Pakistan fans can pay to Babar Azam is some sort of favourable comparison with Virat Kohli. The numbers suggest he could be on track to become Pakistan’s greatest batsman ever, but he isn’t nearly in a position where such comparisons are helpful or accurate. India will be well aware that his average against them drops from his career figure of 50.96 to 27.50, and he is yet to cross 50 in four matches. The contest against Australia, where he looked gorgeous for the all-too-short time he was there, will latch itself into YouTube clips for glorious immortality, but a longer, grittier, uglier innings would have won Pakistan the game – the sort of game Kohli would have won for India. Old Trafford is another chance for Babar to show he isn’t just a big player but also one who can rise to the big occasion.
India’s biggest concern is the unavailability of Shikhar Dhawan owing to a hand injury sustained against Australia. KL Rahul will be promoted to open the batting, with Vijay Shankar looking likeliest to take the middle-order slot vacated as a result.
India (probable): 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 KL Rahul, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 Vijay Shankar, 5 MS Dhoni (wk), 6 Kedhar Jadhav, 7 Hardik Pandya, 8 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 9 Kuldeep Yadav, 10 Yuzvendra Chahal, 11 Jasprit Bumrah
Pakistan are wrestling with the balance of their side, and whether to play five specialist bowlers or stick with the extra batsman at seven. There’s uncertainty about the personnel, too, with Shoaib Malik and Asif Ali, both of whom had difficult outings against Australia, potentially in for a demotion. Haris Sohail looks primed to take one of those two places.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Imam-ul-Haq, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Mohammad Hafeez, 5 Sarfaraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 6 Haris Sohail, 7 Shoaib Malik/Asif Ali/Imad Wasim, 8 Shadab Khan, 9 Wahab Riaz, 10 Hasan Ali 11 Mohammad Amir
Pitch and conditions
The pitch is flat, with almost no sign of green, which should suggest a high-scoring game. However, there is inclement weather predicted for the evening, meaning whoever wins the toss will look to put the opposition in.
Bring Kedar Jadhav on early, and give him a long spell. Against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final, India brought him on when starved for wickets, and he struck early, removing Babar Azam in his three-over spell. In the Asia Cup last year, his figures read 9-0-23-3, his career-best figures to date. Mohammad Hafeez gave his wicket away to Aaron Finch loosely in the previous game, and Pakistan are just the sort of team who might get frustrated by the bowler’s unorthodox action and nagging line.
Open the bowling with Shadab. It worked, don’t fix it. Jason Roy was dismissed in Shadab’s second over, and the ploy will be suited even more with a new opener in India’s ranks. If Amir’s job is to target Rohit Sharma, Shadab plotting against Rahul at the other end with the new ball is likely to disrupt the batsmen’s rhythm, and may bring the early wicket Pakistan crave.
Stats and trivia
Pakistan and India have only ever played one ODI at Old Trafford, the venue of the clash tomorrow. That came in the Super Six stage of the 1999 World Cup, with India winning by 47 runs.
Jasprit Bumrah’s figures in the Champions Trophy final read 9-0-68-0. They remain his worst ODI figures.
Shadab Khan is one wicket away from 50 in ODIs, and should he get there tomorrow, will become the fourth Pakistan legspinner to do so.