Asia Cup 2023: Five battles which can shape the Indo-Pak contest

A win on Saturday at Pallekele Stadium may go a long way in seizing the momentum for either side as they are in line to clash quite a few times in next two months in the 50-over format

Virat Kohli and Babar Azam (photo: ICC)
Virat Kohli and Babar Azam (photo: ICC)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The idyllic surroundings of Kandy may seem an unlikely setting for an India-Pakistan game, but there will certainly be no let-up in intensity when the two neighbours face off in their group league game in the Asia Cup on Saturday. 

This is the first of two certain clashes in this continental event (with a Super Four clash due between top two finishers of Group A on 10 September) and then, if things go as per script, again a final between the two in Colombo on 17 September. There could, however, be a slip between the cup and the lip, as was evident in the last two Asia Cup finals. 

With no bilateral cricketing ties between India and Pakistan now, cricket fans around the world wait for this match-up to happen with bated breath — and it’s going to be different this time. What’s more, a winning start on Saturday can hand either side a psychological edge, with their ICC World Cup match coming up on 14 October in Ahmedabad. 

National Herald takes a look at five key match-ups which can be crucial in setting up the outcome of the match: 

Rohit Sharma vs Shaheen Afridi 

This one is almost a no-brainer, with Pakistan’s nippy left arm quick Afridi conjuring up memories of catching the Indian skipper (then a star batter) plumb in front for a golden duck in the 2021 World T20 in Dubai. Rohit, a modern day giant in white ball cricket, has often betrayed a tentativeness early on against the left-armer’s delivery from over the wicket which comes in instead of taking the natural angle. 

It’s a weakness which New Zealander Trent Boult has exploited against Rohit as well, while Mohammed Amir rocked Indian top order singlehanded in similar fashion in the 2017 Champions Trophy final. Let’s see what happens tomorrow. 

Virat Kohli vs Mohammed Nawaz   

The Pakistan camp will be working on a plan to get an in-form Kohli early, and the seemingly innocuous spin of Mohammed Nawaz could be the answer. In the T20 Asia Cup in the UAE last year, the left-arm orthodox spinner managed to get the better of the 34-year-old master. 

The last time the two sides met in Australia in the T20 World Cup, Kohli was in unstoppable form, while he has an impressive record against the green shirts in ODIs, with 536 runs at an average of 48.7. However, he has often had a lapse in concentration against the slow bowlers (ask Moeen Khan or Nathan Lyon) and that’s where the rivals will look to set him up. 

Babar Azam vs Kuldeep Yadav 

Yadav, one of the few practising Chinaman bowlers international cricket, is back in favour with the national selectors, and that is not exactly good news for rival captain Babar Azam, who relishes the ball coming onto the bat and has fallen twice to the wrist spinner, which makes it a good match-up for Saturday. 

In the 2018 Asia Cup in the UAE, Babar was only three runs away from a 50 when he was bowled by Yadav. A year later, the current Pakistan skipper was again on the threshold of a half-century at the 2019 World Cup, but Yadav sent him back. Incidentally, Pakistan lost that match by 89 runs following the Duckworth-Lewis method. 

Fakhar Zaman vs Jasprit Bumrah 

Think of Fakhar Zaman and seniors in the Indian camp will recall how the attacking left-handed opener took the game away from them in the 2017 Champions Trophy final. The left-right combination of Zaman and a more copybook Imam-ul-Haq can cause a few problems for India’s new ball attack, and this is where a well rested Bumrah can test him with his awkward bounce and away swingers.  

Zaman, who has 207 runs at an average of 51.8 against India in this format, has been uncharacteristically cautious against Bumrah in ODIs so far — figures reveal that he has just picked up 25 runs off 45 deliveries against the Indian, at a strike rate of 55.6, much lower than his usual ODI powerplay strike rate of 82.6. 

Virat Kohli vs Babar Azam 

There may be no direct bat-and-ball clash like the other ones, but any Indo-Pak match in recent years has this as the biggest sub-plot. The two still hold the key to their batting fortunes: remember the unbeaten century partnership between Azam and Mohammed Rizwan, humiliating India by 10 wickets in the 2021 World T20 in Dubai, while Kohli returned the compliment with a masterclass in the same tournament in Australia last year. 

While fans will be fans and can’t resist a comparison, there seems to be enough mutual respect between the two batters. It’s difficult to forget Azam’s X post: ‘’This too shall pass’’ when the former Indian captain had been enduring a poor run while Kohli had acknowledged Babar as a ‘’top batter of the world’.’ 

Over to Pallekele Stadium then, with the hope that the weather holds! 

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