How is it that we have got here? It seems surreal. In the age of skirting around stereotypes and upending norms, here comes a contest almost as old as partition itself: Pakistani bowling v Indian batting, and still, though we have all tasted this masala and read some version of this script, it doesn’t feel even slightly hackneyed, not even a little stale.
How could it be? Australia might be the winningest outfit in the game, but are there two prouder cricket nations than India and Pakistan? Close your eyes. Bring to mind the players of yore. Waqar Younis and his yorkers, with tails like comets, making matchsticks out of the stumps; Mohammad Azharuddin, his flicks like brushwork, the ball teleporting through the leg side, reappearing so far into the distance you only knew it had arrived when it thwacked the boundary board. Here is Sachin Tendulkar tapping his bat, so poised, so zen at the crease; there blows Shoaib Akhtar like a hot wind, limbs whipping through that elastic action. An India v Pakistan match is not so much a new chapter in a rivalry, as a clash of cricketing bloodlines.
And an elemental force has each side been in this tournament. India, sleeker now than they have been in previous decades, have overpowered oppositions to get to this final. Not since Australia in the last decade, has an ODI team looked quite so clinical, quite so bristling with purpose. They have a formula about their game too: start steady with the bat, surge through the middle, and finish big. With the ball: strangle up front, make incisions through the middle, and let the opposition innings bleed out. They stand now, muscles rippling, only once – against Sri Lanka – having had to break a sweat.
Pakistan, meanwhile, have been the same old manic vortex: awful sometimes, amazing at others, transitioning from one to the other between matches, or within the same over – who knows how the mood will strike? While India are a knowable, quantifiable outfit, Pakistan’s strength is their imperviousness to any kind of rational breaking down of their game. How can you plan against that?
Still, it is Pakistan who will have to spring the surprise here. They are the team that has to make the charge on Minas Tirith. It is up to them to gird up their strike power for the raid on the Death Star.
At these global events, they have long been the race-car that goes from zero to a hundred quicker than anyone else, it’s just that sometimes, that is while tumbling off a side of a cliff.
No one has quite lived out India’s dominance in the Champions Trophy, nor their appetite for the big events, like Shikhar Dhawan, whose 317 runs at an average of 79.25 (and a strike rate of 102), places him at the top of the run scorers’ list. Much like with his team, there is a brooding confidence in Dhawan’s game at the moment. He is resplendently unflustered by slow starts, backing himself to score quickly later on. So well-placed is India when he typically departs, that it’s not just that he has laid the foundation, he has helped complete most of the building. All that remains for the likes of MS Dhoni to do is stick a spire on the top, and run the flag up the pole.
And who better embodies the campaign of what was the eighth-ranked team in the tournament than the man who was thought to be only the fourth-best quick in the squad. Hasan Ali has a hint of the old Pakistan sorcery about his bowling: the lachak in his approach, the theatrical celebration, the wisps of reverse swing. With ten victims at an average of 17.20, and a wonderful economy rate of 4.52, he has the potential to be the pebble that jams up India’s cogs, and brings the machinery tumbling down.
India (possible) 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 Yuvraj Singh, 5 MS Dhoni (wk), 6 Kedar Jadhav, 7 Hardik Pandya, 8 Ravindra Jadeja, 9 R Ashwin/Umesh Yadav,10 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 11 Jasprit Bumrah.
Pakistan (possible) 1 Azhar Ali, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Mohammad Hafeez, 5 Shoaib Malik, 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 7 Imad Wasim, 8 Mohammad Amir, 9 Shadab Khan, 10 Hasan Ali, 11 Junaid Khan.