The Red Devils had lost to Brighton last weekend
Hark back to 2007 when the inaugural T20 World Cup was played. Purists thought the ultra-brief format contaminated the sport, pragmatists believed it was unsustainable in the long run, a vast majority of players were frankly skeptical and fans were unsure how it would pan out. Almost 15 years later, this format is quite the rage in the cricket universe, and the T20 World Cup delivers the most eyeballs and generates the most revenue.
In many ways, T20 cricket’s phenomenal popularity today is because of the passion and magic of India-Pakistan cricket rivalry as it came through in the 2007 World Cup. The first match in which the two teams clashed went into the Super Over, in which India prevailed. This gave the tournament needed impetus, drawing in fans, to the grounds in South Africa as well as television sets all over the world.
India and Pakistan then met in the final. It turned out to be a last-over humdinger which had not just entire sub-continent, but the entire cricket world enraptured. India won by whisker, but the benefits to cricket were gargantuan. Close on the heels of that World Cup came the Indian Premier League (IPL), now a multi-billion-dollar property, followed by similar leagues in many other countries. Not all of them are proving to be as lucrative but it is making T20 the most popular format in the sport.
There are some interesting connections for some current players — from India and Pakistan — with the 2007 tournament. Rohit Sharma, who had just graduated from the under-19 ranks, played in the final, scoring 30 off just 16 deliveries, which gave India’s wobbly batting effort a much-needed boost. Rohit is now among the pre-eminent batsmen in the world and perhaps, the biggest threat to Pakistan in tonight’s (Sunday) match at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, dubbed the ‘Ring of Fire.’
For Pakistan, veterans Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez, who have been drafted into the current team to provide depth in all-round skills and experience, had played in the 2007 final too. Are they long in the tooth, will their rich experience help the team absorb pressure better in this key match is the question swirling in the minds of aficionados.
And yes, there is Mahendra Singh Dhoni too. He’s retired from international cricket, but has been made mentor for the Indian team for this tournament. It’s not just his hairstyle that has changed since 2007. After winning that tournament, Dhoni went on to win an ODI World Cup, the Champions Trophy, multiple IPL titles and the Champions League for Chennai Super Kings, to build up arguably the most formidable reputation as captain this millennium.
How much will Dhoni’s tactical nous assist skipper Virat Kohli, in his last tournament as captain in T20, along with chief coach Ravi Shastri and his support staff, remains to be seen. But the Indian cricket administration has not left any opportunity to win the title for the second time, unexplored.
A good start to the tournament is what both India and Pakistan will be seeking. How do the teams stack up?
On paper, India have greater depth of talent as well as experience. They have some momentum too, having won both warm-up matches emphatically. Pakistan had one win and one defeat. Of course, not too much should be read into these results since captains and coaches would have been trying out combinations for the main draw, but a win is a confidence booster.
From India’s point of view, the more rewarding — and pertinent to their prospects — was the splendid form shown by players who looked off-colour during the IPL. Rohit Sharma, Ishan Kishan, Suryakumar Yadav, R Ashwin — tepid during the League — looked like they were hitting peak rhythm in the warm-up games.
Add to this the fact that India’s players have spent considerable time in the UAE playing the IPL and would know the conditions, pitches etc better than Pakistan’s players, who unfortunately have also been denied competitive cricket because of the tours cancelled by New Zealand and England.
All these factors tilt the advantage in India’s favour, in theory. But it would be folly to be dismissive of Pakistan, currently just marginally behind India in the ICC T20 rankings. The top order with Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Fakhar Zaman can be destructive, the bowling attack has fine pace and spin options for the captain to exploit, and there are some talented all-rounders to shore up both batting and bowling.
On paper, the Indian team looks richer in talent and experience with a more accomplished recent record in all formats. But sport is unpredictable and not beholden to what looks good on paper, rather who performs better on the field. Skills will matter in this clash of course, but perhaps even more which team holds its nerve better.
Ayaz Memon is an Indian sports writer and commentator
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