India v Pakistan

Predictable Pakistan are mercurial no more

It was not so long ago that Indian fans went into a World Cup honestly thinking that the final result was irrelevant. Reaching the final was good, winning would be a bonus, but beating Pakistan on the way there was non-negotiable. In Birmingham at the 2017 Champions Trophy there was a mildly anti-climactic feel toIndia’s comfortable 124-run win.

Here was a Pakistan team that neither mercurial nor unpredicatable. Here was an Indian team on top of its game in almost every respect. For once, India even had a fast-bowling attack far superior to the one it was facing. There was no Imran, no Wasim, no Waqar, no Shoaib, and only in Mohammad Amir’s first spell, especially the testing maiden over to Rohit Sharma first up did the match feel like a contest.

Coming into the match, India’s most significant area of concern was the openers. Although Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have been largely unchallenged, it would not be amiss to say that the two had not done enough, individually or in partnership to suggest long-term success.

In that light, the 136-run opening stand, even if it ate up nearly 25 overs, was worth its weight in gold.

Rohit was especially culpable in keeping the scoring rate down, overseeing as many as 63 dot balls in his 119-ball 91. But, if he had lasted a little longer, there was every chance he would have hurt Pakistan and made his own numbers look excellent.

As it turned out, Rohit’s run out came at the perfect time for India. Yuvraj Singh, who was so ill recently that he had to be hospitalised, made the most of a dropped catch to hit the ball to all parts. Deliveries that might have choked other batsmen were dispatched with ease, as Kohli pointed out. “The way Yuvi batted, it was the game-changing innings, to be honest,” said Kohli. “That gave all of us the confidence to start striking the ball well. The way he batted was the way only he can strike the ball. Hitting low full-tosses for fours and sixes, and even digging out yorkers for fours, was outstanding.”

Kohli, who ended with an unbeaten 81 off only 68 balls, explained why Yuvraj’s hand was so influential. “I think till 40 I was easing into the game, taking my ones and twos like I always do. I could not go for the big ones because it was tricky. We went off about four times,” said Kohli. “When Yuvi came in, he started striking from ball one and that took pressure off me, and maybe I should have given him strike. That really deflated the opposition and that gave me a bit of time to settle in from the other end. When he got out, I took over. But I think his innings was a difference in the game.”

But, India were in front of the game long before their openers clicked or their finishers did their bit. Kohli, who had a potentially tricky job picking eleven out of a robust fifteen, got it just right. “The combination was something that we spoke about. We had named 12 yesterday, and then we decided in the morning that the surface was hard enough for the bowlers to keep hitting good, hard lengths and use the bouncer every over as well to create a bit of pressure,” said Kohli. “And we decided to play an extra seamer against Pakistan, purely because of the fact that becomes a wicket-taking option.”

Restoring the confidence of a set yet not always successful opening batting combination: check. Keeping faith in the lower order to score at pace, taking the team from a decent total to a matchwinning one: check. Playing Yuvraj, recovering from illness, ahead of the in-form Dinesh Karthik: check.

Pakistan’s captain, Sarfaraz Ahmed, wanted his team to think out of the box in order to put it past India. Instead, they never quite got sight of the box as India spent 81.4 overs ticking all the boxes they might have hoped to, setting themselves up perfectly in the tournament.

Forget about the statistics of India’s wins against Pakistan in global events, and don’t even point to the fact that India have won 17 of their last 18 matches in 50-over ICC tournaments. This was not about facts or figures. It was about one team bossing the other. And India’s players will know that neither Sri Lanka nor South Africa pose the same emotional strain as Pakistan.

In that sense, this Indian team has broken the mould. Beating Pakistan was a box to be ticked, but it is no longer the most important game in a tournament. The business of winning can be placed front and centre, the hearts of fans having already been won over.

(This article first appeared on the Scroll website on June 5, 2017)