India start as favourites against Pakistan but question marks remain

Aakash Chopra 10:40 04/06/2017
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As India and Pakistan get ready to lock horns in the Champions Trophy today, we ask ourselves if an India-Pakistan match ignites the same feelings anymore. Is it still a matter of life and death? Is it war without the weapons?

When I toured Pakistan in 2004, cricket came out of the sports pages and appeared on the front pages of national dailies. There was extensive coverage in electronic media too.

An India-Pakistan cricket match was always special, for the countries identified their progress with the results of their cricket team. Since both countries were still developing, there wasn’t too much to boast about. Winning a cricket match was a way to assert superiority.

While there was always keen interest, the level of media focus in 2004 was unheard of, and it hasn’t changed since. Even though the actual cricket is not half as exciting as it used to be in the 1980s and ‘90s, the media hasn’t stopped milking the cash-cow called India-Pakistan game.

Let’s get down to business and look at what India need to do to start the campaign on a winning note, and if there are any concerns that need addressing from their perspective.

Strong start

In the 2013 Champions Trophy, Indian openers added 382 runs in five games, which included two century and two half-century partnerships. Both Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma started strongly against South Africa in the opening game then and continued their good form. Four years later, the same combination will be starting the innings in England.

Dhawan came into this tournament on the heels of a successful IPL and hit the ground running in the warm-up games, which should keep the naysayers at bay. Rohit, on the other hand, had a stop-start IPL and missed out in the only warm-up game he played.

However, he’s too good a player to miss out for long. Unlike the IPL, he’ll be opening the batting and therefore will have ample time to get his eye in. He should fire sooner rather than later.

Number 4

The last time when India played ODI cricket, there was no discussion about the No4 slot, for Yuvraj made a stunning comeback. He scored a century against England and sealed the deal for the Champions Trophy.

But Yuvraj has been under the weather for a few weeks – he missed the last couple of games in the IPL due to a finger injury and arrived in England with a viral fever. His absence allowed Dinesh Karthik to stake a claim for the spot and if Yuvraj is not a 100 per cent, Karthik should be an automatic choice. It will be interesting to see if India go with Yuvraj even if he is not fully fit.

Pandya or Ashwin

The biggest question that the Indians have to ask is if they’d like to go with five proper bowlers or four bowlers and an all-rounder in Hardik Pandya. It’s a given that Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah will be the seamers and Ravindra Jadeja seems to have sealed his spot too. It’s going to be a toss-up between Ravi Ashwin and Pandya.

Since Virat has been vocal about playing five bowlers on most occasions, it won’t be surprising if he plays Ashwin. But if he isn’t fully confident about the form of some of his batsmen, he might opt for Pandya as a cushion in case of a collapse.

I’ve always believed that playing five bowlers is the right thing to do but Hardik’s finishing abilities have presented a very tempting option for the team.

There was a time when finding fast bowlers was a problem for Indian cricket but now, we are fortunate to have a problem of plenty.

It will be unfair to finish this piece without mentioning Mohammed Shami, for he’s been outstanding whenever he’s played for India, but there’s a chance that he will be forced to warm the bench today.

On paper, India should win this contest without fuss but then, an India-Pakistan encounter doesn’t always play out according to expectations.

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