“We will leave the hype to the media and focus on the cricket,” Rohit Sharma said on Saturday, refusing to be sucked into the India-Pakistan buzz that the two teams have effortlessly insulated themselves from. Inasmuch as recent skirmishes between the sides have become few and far between, restricted as they are to multi-team tournaments, the edge and needle that once characterised these contests seem to have been blunted by the passage of time.
Not always have players managed to keep their passions at arm’s length in the past. One only has to reflect on the World Cup quarterfinal in 1996 in Bengaluru, when Aamir Sohail had an unprovoked go at Venkatesh Prasad and paid the ultimate price by having his off-stump plucked out next ball to realise the futility of allowing the heart to rule the mind.
Historically, India have had the better of the exchanges with their cross-border rivals in global competitions. Indeed, until the T20 World Cup in the UAE late last year, India boasted a perfect 12-0 record against Pakistan in World Cups of the 50- and 20-over variety. Pakistan took a tiny step towards redressing a totally skewed balance with an admittedly commanding 10-wicket hammering at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, but there was no chest-beating as Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan hunted down an apparently challenging target with ridiculous ease.
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Fans from both sides of the Wagah have learned, by and large, to take these results in their stride. Where, in the past, Indian sides might have faced the wrath and fury of their indignant supporters, there was a sense of massive disappointment rather than unchecked anger at what transpired that fateful October 24 night in Dubai. This new-found equanimity is a wonderful development in an uncertain world where there is, and should be, little reason to get caught up in the whirlpool of emotional mood swings catalysed by what in essence is a sporting contest.
This recent maturity and poise of followers of the teams will be put to the test more than once over the next fortnight as the Asia Cup devolves towards a denouement. Act One of what the organisers are hoping will be a three-part play will unfold in Dubai on Sunday in the first Group A league fixture as the teams extend their preparations for the World Cup in Australia, starting in some seven weeks’ time.
Their net sessions at the ICC Academy overlapped more than once during the last few days, and the players made the most of the opportunity to renew acquaintances and enquire after each other’s well-being. Virat Kohli, who will become the second player in the world after Ross Taylor to make 100 international appearances in each of the three formats, caught up injured Pakistani pace ace Shaheen Shah Afridi to get a first-hand update of the left-arm swing exponent’s recovery from the ligament damage, and later met a specially-abled fan from Pakistan who had waited more than three hours for a glimpse of the former Indian captain.
Rohit Sharma, Kohli’s successor as the cross-format skipper, took a leaf out of his predecessor’s book by making the day of another Pakistani fan, and there was a general sense of bonhomie and camaraderie between players from both sides. None of this means there will be any let-up in intensity when the teams take the field on Sunday. What this shows, instead, is that it is more than possible for opponents in high-profile sports environments to not be enemies. They will compete but with respect. India versus Pakistan will continue to enthral and excite but not inflame and incite like it once used to, and much of the credit for that should go to the modern generation of players as well as spectators.
If things go to plan and script, India will take on Pakistan again next Sunday and the Sunday thereafter, in the Super 4 stage and the grand final respectively. That’s not guaranteed, of course, but it’s very much a possibility. That, however, doesn’t mean that there will be a reduced burden of expectation in any of those games. There can never be just another India-Pakistan game anywhere in the world. Tickets have sold like hot potatoes; it’s guaranteed that the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, no more than a fifth full at best for Saturday’s tournament opener between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, will be bursting at the seams as opposing sets of fans will bring colour, atmosphere and electricity to this bustling cosmopolitan city.
From an Indian perspective, there is so much to look forward to. KL Rahul, installed as Rohit’s deputy, will be playing his first T20I of the year and Kohli, who came to the tournament without having held a bat for 30 days, return to action after protracted absences, determined to slip seamlessly into the template India have adopted in the T20 format in the last ten months. Under Rohit and head coach Rahul Dravid, there has been a concerted effort to shed timidity and diffidence with the bat; that has spawned numerous daredevils, not least Suryakumar Yadav and Deepak Hooda. Rahul and Kohli haven’t been an integral part of this revolution, Kohli’s T20I appearances for the year standing at a measly four. The team, and those on the outer, will view with keen interest how much, or little, time they take to adopt the new way of thinking.
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Kohli has professed a renewed enthusiasm for the game after a slight waning of intensity, if not interest, over the last several months. His sense of occasion is second to none, and it will come as no surprise if he celebrates his 100th appearance milestone by turning the clock back and reliving the glory days when runs cascaded off his scything willow with metronomic regularity.
Pakistan will want another victory at the same venue as their conquest in the World Cup, if only for vindication ahead of another World Cup that last year was no flash in the pan. In Babar, they have a phlegmatic captain who is in the form of his life and who knows how to get the best out of his colleagues. Like Rohit, he is a seasoned leader with an excellent bunch at his disposal. Sunday, and beyond, should offer excitement aplenty. That, at least, is the hope and the promise.