Eden Gardens, Kolkata
Captain (India): MS Dhoni
Captain (Pakistan): Shahid Afridi
It took exactly 6 hours for the world to turn upside down. A few days ago, India were newly crowned T20 Asia Cup Champions, and a battered, bruised Pakistan team hadn’t even reached the final – thanks to perhaps the weakest batting line-up in the competition. India, under Dhoni, then entered the World T20 Championship at home as outright favorites, having won 10 of their last 11 T20 matches. In home conditions, they were virtually unbeatable. A tiny hiccup in the form of a warm-up T20 loss to South Africa at Wankhede was brushed under the mat, because everybody was just testing their firepower.
Their first match was to be against New Zealand, who haven’t had a proud record in these conditions. Under Kane Williamson, this team has been recovering from the loss of their greatest icon and cricketer Martin Crowe. The retirement of McCullum further drove home the India-favorites tag, especially on the turning, graveyard-friendly conditions in Nagpur (Ask South Africa). 3 hours later, India were bowled out for 79 while chasing 127. Just like that, their world came crashing down. Favorites? A few hours ago, everybody and their mother was mocking the Kiwis for dropping their two best bowlers – Trent Boult and Tim Southee – to accommodate 3 spinners, Nathan McCullum, Ish Sodhi and Mitchell Santner. This was to counter India’s spinning trio of Ashwin, Jadeja and Raina (to an extent). The most deluded fan would perhaps look back to that Mumbai Test match against Panesar and Swann, where England outplayed India at their own game.
That’s exactly what happened. India, humbled and humiliated, must win all 3 of their matches to reach the semis now. They were expected to defeat New Zealand, and now, the mother of all matches against Pakistan at Eden Gardens (Pakistan’s favorite venue) will virtually be a knockout for India.
And in a similar 3 hours, Pakistan’s batting fired like never before, and they posted a 200+ total against Bangladesh – who started as second favorites behind India in the group. They defeated Bangladesh easily, and now stand at the top of the standings with a terrific net run rate. Pakistan, that of batting collapses and eccentric run outs, got their act together against a strong all-round team, and suddenly, find themselves going into a game against their archrivals with the upper hand.
All those records – of never beating India in a World Cup, of having had a wretched year, of not supporting Amir enough – will come to nil if they beat India in Kolkata, knocking them out of a tournament before they even knew what hit them. It will be the cruelest cut of them all – redemption of a kind only Pakistan are capable of pulling off.
Well, we thought India was the strongest T20 outfit in cricket. But Shastri’s obsession with turners and tailor-made pitches to destroy opposition teams seems to have blown up in his own face – and perhaps for the better. This will force the Indians to dig deep and find another gear, that of playing in neutral conditions, with only crowd support as a factor. They were caught napping too long in Nagpur by an unheralded young T20 outfit, already giving us one of the big upsets of the year. Odd, considering this Kiwi team had reached the ODI World Cup final a year ago.
Pakistan, meanwhile, seem to be picking up at the right time. They defeated Sri Lanka in their warm-ups, followed by the Bangladesh mauling – revenge for the Asia Cup match. Captain Afridi stepped it up and played his usual 1-out-of-15 innings to stun the opposition into submission.
79 all out – with Rohit, Dhawan, Virat, Raina, Yuvraj and Dhoni in the batting order. Without Boult bowling to them. What gives? They were all in form till a few days ago. A collective brain freeze of this extent has rarely been witnessed before. Eden Gardens will present to them a flatter pitch, but will definitely have something for Ashwin and Jadeja again. They will need more from Hardik Pandya though, who failed with the bat again, and must be wondering if he is an all-rounder anymore. The rest just need to forget about Tuesday, and treat Saturday as their opening match on the biggest stage. Form becomes irrelevant, and it’ll come down to crunch moments. The team shouldn’t be chopped around with.
With the arrival of the in-form Ahmed Shehzad, their batting looks a bit assured, especially with Hafeez contributing again. If Afridi fails (and he will, 9 out of 10 times), there’s always Umar Akmal, who didn’t get much of a chance against Bangladesh. Amir took a couple of wickets again, and will be keen to terrorize the Indian batsmen again after what he did to them in the Asia Cup. Their last contest was so low-scoring, that it was difficult to even gauge the strengths or weaknesses of this team. We do know that Pakistan has never lost at Eden Gardens, a record they will be keen to maintain.
It’d be nice to get one right for a change, but I’d have to say India will wake up and remind other teams why they are favorites. It won’t be easy, but it’s not possible for the team to fall to pieces on two consecutive occasions. They have surely learned.