India will hope its callow middle-order comes of age; Pakistan unlikely to make changes

The inner sanctum of the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium, the playing field, has had a piercing quiet enveloping it in the last week. With the first block of matches in the Asia Cup staged in Fatullah, the setting here has much resembled the ghost towns seen in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns.

But all that eeriness will be buried under the explosion of noise as India and Pakistan step onto the turf on Sunday. Never mind that it’s a neutral venue. The clash — billed as a ‘virtual semifinal’ — is the contextual cornerstone of the tournament for many on either side of the Wagah border.

Like the protagonists in Leone’s films, neither team has made much attempt at jabbering away in public. The stoical pithiness comes from the knowledge that both the sub-continental rivals have their hands hovering near the holster, each looking to fire the decisive shot.

The reiteration of the ‘virtual semifinal’ aspect isn’t merely an exercise to talk up an already high-voltage encounter. India as well as Pakistan have won and lost one game each thus far.

Better for batting

Pakistan, though, is in second position in the points table — behind Sri Lanka — after it secured a win with a bonus point over Afghanistan. The wicket here is unlikely to mirror the relatively slow surface in Fatullah. “I hear this wicket will have perfect batting conditions,” Pakistan’s chief cricket consultant Zaheer Abbas said on Saturday.

It will also be simplistic to presume that the sub-plot would be the tussle between India’s batters and Pakistan’s bowlers. India’s batting, after all, isn’t the same what with a callow middle-order coming to grips with pressure-absorption. That worrying facet presented itself against Sri Lanka on Friday when a solid start was upstaged by a floundering show later on.

Talismanic impetus

Skipper Virat Kohli will provide the talismanic impetus his side desperately requires. It was his iridescent 183 that was responsible for India hunting down Pakistan’s 329 in the last edition of the Asia Cup. That match was also Sachin Tendulkar’s last ODI.

Ajinkya Rahane showed the willingness to bat time. But these two need reinforcements; the likes of Rohit Sharma and K. Dinesh Karthik need to pull their weight.

While R. Ashwin, restoring his original action, and Ravindra Jadeja have done well in tandem, there still remain chinks. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, for all his precision upfront, has been taken for runs in the dying stages.

Pakistan, too, has batting issues, but Abbas said there wasn’t likely to be any changes to the unit that played against Afghanistan. Skipper Misbah-ul-Haq, heartened as he will by Umar Akmal’s enhanced impact, will expect more runs from Mohammad Hafeez, Sharjeel Khan and Sohaib Maqsood. Pakistan has thus far tried both Bilawal Bhatti and Anwar Ali in the third-seamer slot, and neither has been particularly impressive.

It will be fascinating to watch which side tides past an overwhelming deluge of decibel-level and nerves, as India and Pakistan script another chapter to their storied rivalry.

The teams (from):

India: Virat Kohli (capt), Varun Aaron, Ravichandran Ashwin, Stuart Binny, Shikhar Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja, K. Dinesh Karthik (wk), Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Amit Mishra, Mohammed Shami, Ishwar Pandey, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Ambati Rayudu, Rohit Sharma.

Pakistan: Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), Abdur Rehman, Ahmed Shehzad, Anwar Ali, Bilawal Bhatti, Fawad Alam, Junaid Khan, Mohammad Hafeez, Mohammad Talha, Saeed Ajmal, Shahid Afridi, Sharjeel Khan, Sohaib Maqsood, Umar Akmal (wk), Umar Gul.

Play starts at 1.30 p.m. IST.

More In: Cricket | Sport