The much-awaited match between arch-rivals India and Pakistan turned out to be a one-sided affair in the end, as Pakistan produced a performance for the ages in Dubai. Stung by the recent withdrawal of New Zealand and England from domestic tours just weeks ago, the Pakistani cricket team played the role of graceful underdogs throughout the night, deservedly earning them a victory. The Indian cricket team, led by Virat Kohli, could only watch on as the Pakistanis turned the table on them to produce a 10-wicket victory.
The outcome also could turn out to be crucial for both sides as they hunt down the T20 World Cup this year, with momentum favouring Pakistan in Group B.
SUPERSTARS AND UNDERDOGS
The advent of the T20 era started with India winning the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, followed up by the start of the domestic Indian T20 League. Since then, Team India has been able to produce numerous superstars across all formats of the game, giving numerous youngsters to showcase their talents and earn a spot in the national team. As such, the Indian cricket team right now is a product of the Indian T20 League, and there is no doubt that every player in the team is a superstar in his own right. As a team, the Men in Blue have turned out to be one of the most ferocious of tourers, conquering pitches that were previously impossible for Indian batsmen and bowlers to master. Even in the shortest format of the game, India were always ranked in the top three – maintaining consistency in bilaterals that stood in stark contrast to the lack of trophies since 2007.
Compared to the star-studded Indian lineup, Pakistan has barely filled the voids that its greats have left. The team has had a high turnover rate in the past few years, with contract disputes and teetering troubles on the management side troubling the players. Pakistani players have been unable to participate in the Indian T20 League as far as history can tell. But despite those setbacks, the players have always given their best – led by their captain Babar Azam, they have been able to maintain their top ranking in the shortest format of the game for quite some time. For many of the players, this was the biggest event of their cricketing career and their first match against arch-rivals India.
The last time both sides met in a fixture was in the 2019 World Cup in England, when India registered a decisive victory over Pakistan. The rivalry between India and Pakistan in cricket is one of the world’s most storied rivalries and perhaps beats any football rivalries in its intensity. Political troubles between both nations make the fixtures between both sides rare, increasing the pressure on both sets of players to perform their best in the few matches that occur. A major addition to the pressure on both sides is the narrative back at home – while the Pakistanis are under pressure to perform from their board, India wants to give a perfect sendoff to Virat Kohli as he steps down from leadership of the shortest format of the game.
Coming into the fixture, it was Indians who seemed to be the better side. A superstar-laden team led by a terrific captain and mentored by Mahendra Singh Dhoni seemed to be the ideal combination for maintaining composure during the night. In contrast, the pressure and nerves only seemed to build upon the Pakistanis as their board announced a bonus if they win against India – a wrong signal at the wrong time.
Fortune did not favour Virat Kohli once again as Babar Azam won the toss and chose to field first – the right decision given the conditions. Shaheen Afridi and Imad Wasim were given the new ball from either end – a left-arm pace combo that the Indian top-order was known to be weak against. The last time openers KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma opened the batting against Pakistan, they put together a crucial century-run stand that allowed Indians a comfortable victory. On Sunday, they could barely follow the ball. Rohit Sharma had to walk for a golden duck as a stunning yorker caught him on the pads, while KL Rahul had to walk in the third over for a brilliant ball that sneaked through the gap between his bat and pads.
Hasan Ali picked up the wicket of Surya Kumar Yadav, leaving the Indian top order in shambles. The Indian skipper could only watch from the other side and consolidate the innings in hopes of taking the game deep, which he partially succeeded at. A dogged stand along with Rishabh Pant steadied the ship, and the dashing wicketkeeper was starting to look dangerous when he fell to Shadab Khan in the 13th over. It was not just the bowlers who shined on Sunday. Known around the world unceremoniously for their fielding, Pakistan were clinical during India’s innings, scampering behind the ball and allowing no gaps to be left open for Virat Kohli to score through. That Kohli scored a half-century despite their efforts is a testament to his batting ability, something that India will sorely need for the rest of the tournament.
India managed a grand total of 152/7, courtesy of a 17-run over by Shaheen Afridi at the end. By no means is the total remotely low – Pakistan have chased those many runs only once before in the UAE. With Indian batsmen struggling on the pitch, the expectations were high for a thrilling and close chase, similar to the one between Australia and South Africa the day before.
On a wicket that showed much energy for the bowlers, the Indian lineup – one of the best in the world – could find no answers. Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan started with a slow opening, but found form in the third over against Mohammed Shami, scoring 11 runs off his over to kickstart the chase. Any little opening would have been good for Kohli and his men – a false shot or a misdirected hit – but none was forthcoming. Both openers played to almost perfection, absorbing the pressure and making bowlers jittery with their confidence. The dew factor that was much talked about did kick in, as Ravindra Jadeja and Varun Chakravarthy could only watch the ball up in the air with resignation.
In 2016, Mahendra Singh Dhoni remarked that one day, Pakistan would defeat India in the T20s. It’s been five years since that moment, and as Dhoni watched on from the dressing room – as the Team’s mentor this time – his prophecy came true in a form which no one predicted. After losing 14 times in 17 games over Pakistan in ICC events, Pakistan could finally add a fourth win to their record, and move the needle just a little bit in their favour.
This is team India’s biggest defeat in the shortest format of the game, and that it came against arch-rivals Pakistan in the opening fixture of the tournament would surely hurt them. But if recent comeback stories in Australia and England are to be looked at, India are no pushovers who panic over a single defeat, and India are still the favourites to win the tournament.