LONDON: The game that always ‘stops two nations’ comes again to a third when title-holders India face Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final at London’s Oval ground on Sunday.
And the question millions of cricket fans around the world, possibly even a billion, are all asking is ‘which Pakistan will turn up?’
Will it be the team of their opening group match at Edgbaston on June 4, a 124-run thrashing by arch-rivals India, where their inept bowling and batting were outdone only by woeful fielding in what Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur labelled a “shambolic” display?
Or will it be the slick, skilled side who hammered England by eight wickets in the semi-finals, with Hasan Ali, the competition’s leading wicket-taker, spearheading a brilliant bowling effort as the previously unbeaten tournament hosts were dismissed for just 211 before the likes of Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman helped knock off the runs in dashing style?
Arthur is confident the India “aberration” is now behind Pakistan, who’ve also lost all three of their previous knockout matches at International Cricket Council tournaments against their fiercest foes.
“What we’ve produced after that doesn’t come as any surprise, because that’s how we trained, and that’s what we worked at,” Arthur told reporters at The Oval on Saturday.
“It was very disappointing to see that go wrong in the Indian game…That was an aberration. We’re now moving forward.”
‘History can change’
The South African’s comments echoed those of Pakistan bowling coach Azhar Mahmood, who insisted: “History can change, and I hope we can (change it).”
The Oval was where, in 1882, England’s defeat by Australia led to a mock obituary in a newspaper referring to the “ashes” of English cricket and hence the name for all future Anglo-Australian Test series.
But few would dispute that India-Pakistan is now the world game’s premier contest — certainly not the ICC who, by their own admission, now fix the draw at their events to ensure the Asian giants meet in the group phase.
“It is massive,” insisted Azhar. “It is bigger than the Ashes — and expectation is high from both nations, crazy about cricket.”
Arthur confirmed Saturday that Mohammad Amir, who missed the semi-final with a back spasm, would return against India.
“He’s fit to play, and he will play,” said Arthur in answer to a question from AFP.
Amir’s replacement left-arm quick Rumman Raees, who marked his ODI debut with two wickets against England, may now miss out.
But Pakistan could also find a place for Amir by leaving out a spinner in either Shadab Khan or Imad Wasim.
India, whose skipper Virat Kohli heads the tournament batting averages with a stratospheric 253, are a formidable outfit.
As well as Kohli, their top order boasts the likes of dynamic opening pair of Rohit Sharma, fresh from a hundred in a nine-wicket semi-final rout of Bangladesh, and Shikhar Dhawan.
But their middle-order has rarely been tested and Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed believed his bowlers could pose problems for India, even late in the innings.
“After the India game we have bowled with an attacking mindset and that is why we have taken wickets,” he said.
“The final overs usually involve a lot of pressure and especially if you are playing against India.”
But Sarfraz, who has had a fine tournament in his triple role of captain, wicket-keeper and batsman added: “You saw how well we bowled in the ‘death overs’ against South Africa and also Sri Lanka”.
India too have a well-balanced attack, with the new-ball duo of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah supported by contrasting spinners in Ravichandran Ashwin and left-armer Ravindra Jadeja.
Ashwin is expected to be fit despite suffering a blow to his right knee from a wayward throw in during fielding practice at The Oval on Saturday.
Meanwhile Kohli too insisted the group clash was no longer of any relevance.
“On their day they can beat any side in the world,” the India captain said of Pakistan.
“That’s the kind of players they have, we’re quite aware of that.”
Kohli, however, added: “At the same time, neither are we too intimidated nor are we too arrogant about what we are doing.”