It’s the same venue, Dubai, where arch rivals India and Pakistan contested a lopsided T20 World Cup opening encounter in October last year. They will kick off their Asia Cup campaigns there on Sunday evening. A lot has changed in the ten months since they last met, but the batting chinks in both sides are again in focus ahead of the clash.
At the T20 World Cup, Pakistan won by 10 wickets with two overs to spare, as openers Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam put on an unbeaten 152-run stand. India’s batting failed, with only Virat Kohli making a half-century but at too low a strike rate to challenge Pakistan.
The man who blew away the Indian openers in his opening spell, the six-foot-six-inch left-armer Shaheen Shah Afridi, is out with a knee injury this time. A right-arm pacer with a dodgy action, Mohammad Hasnain, replaces him as an option to share the new ball with the pacy Haris Rauf. The six-footer Hasnain may be a handful on a bouncy Dubai track. Another threat is the exciting teenager, Naseem Shah, who had a five-wicket haul recently against the Netherlands.
India will again depend heavily on Rohit Sharma giving them a good start. His opening partner, KL Rahul, is undercooked after a long break since the IPL as he had a sports hernia surgery and then a bout of covid. Rahul failed to get going in his two outings against Zimbabwe, plodding to 30 in 46 balls in the last game.
Virat Kohli at No. 3 is in his third year of poor form. He will also be returning to the side after a long rest. Suryakumar Yadav has dazzled and disappointed in equal measure in the middle order and it’s anybody’s guess which version turns up against Pakistan. Wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant and all-rounders Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja will be the likely lower middle order. That’s exactly the same lineup that India had at the T20 World Cup against Pakistan.
India under new skipper Sharma and new coach Rahul Dravid have experimented liberally with players and lineups since then. But what good is all that experimentation if the players in form ultimately can’t get into the big games? Shubman Gill was the player of the series against West Indies and Zimbabwe, batting stylishly and freely in the top order. But he finds no place in the Asia Cup squad, as the Indian think tank wants to give Rahul the opportunity to get back into his groove in time for the upcoming T20 World Cup in October.
Similarly, as long as Kohli is guaranteed his slot regardless of form, Deepak Hooda will have to wait in the wings as a replacement for Yadav, despite plundering 274 runs at an average of 54.8 and a strike rate of 161 in his seven T20 innings for India this year. There’s no doubt, however, that pressure will keep mounting on the incumbents as the fringe batsmen keep producing sterling performances at almost every opportunity they get.
The Pakistan batting lineup appears a lot different on paper this time compared to the 2021 T20 World Cup side. But in substance, they continue to rely heavily on the top order of Mohammad Rizwan, Babar Azam, and Fakhar Zaman. The change has come in the middle order, as stalwarts like Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik have made way for Asif Ali, Ifthikar Ahmed, and Khushdil Shah. But the latter are yet to inspire confidence.
How the Pakistan batting fares will depend on the conditions in Dubai at this time of the year. The toss may not be such a big factor with a 6pm start (7:30pm IST) as we saw in the World Cup last year. Teams batting second in the World Cup had an easier time under the lights, with dew forming in the cool night air, and most of the results favoured them. But that was in the month of October, whereas now in August Dubai is hot and humid, making dew an unlikely prospect. So we will hopefully be spared the sight of a wet ball playing spoilsport.
Like Pakistan, India will be without their best bowler, Jasprit Bumrah. But the Indian bowling appears in better shape than it did last year. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been in fine fettle this year and his pace has gone up just enough to make his swingers potent again. He was tonked by the Pakistan openers in his opening spell last time and will want to set the record straight. All-rounder Hardik Pandya, so undercooked the last time around, has now regained his fitness and form. His confidence is sky-high after leading Gujarat Titans to the IPL 2022 title.
Spinners may play a significant role in the warmer weather and here India is much better off this year after reinstating the crafty leggie Yuzvendra Chahal. The quick googlies of Ravi Bishnoi could also be something new for the Pakistan batsmen to negotiate. Bishnoi may in fact be a better bet than left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja, whose bowling has lost its bite this year, but that will lengthen the tail.
Pakistan too have two leg-spinners in the side, Shadab Khan and Usman Qadir, and it will be interesting to see if they field both in tandem. Or, like India, they might also opt for a left-arm orthodox spinner, Mohammad Nawaz, who has taken the place of the canny all-rounder Imad Wasim.
The two sides appear well-matched, with India’s top order vulnerability mirrored by Pakistan’s middle order weakness. They may well play against one another three times at the Asia Cup if both teams qualify for the Super Four stage and then the final.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.