Finally, at the 13th time of asking, Pakistan got the better of India in an ICC World Cup showdown. Whether it was worth the wait, only they can say, but there is no doubting the chutzpah which accompanied their ten-wicket rout at the Dubai International Stadium on Sunday night.
India’s unbeaten run against their cross-border opponents had to end at some stage. It’s little short of remarkable that for a dozen contests spread over 29 and a half years, they kept a clean sheet against the most mercurial of international cricket sides in World Cups of both limited-overs variants. Few, though, would have bargained for the manner in which the most one-sided record in cricket World Cup history was marginally redressed.
The discerning will comprehend that the surprise of the night, if any, stemmed not so much from Pakistan eventually managing to put it past India, but that they did so by ten wickets. This wasn’t self-destructing, imploding, pressure-phobic Pakistan. If anything, their cricket was more Indian than India’s, their approach the most judicious blend of searing fire and ice cool which dampened their opponents’ enthusiasm from the off.
Afridi is a surname Indian cricket is familiar with. Shahid Afridi had a special affinity for the Indian bowling, unapologetically dismantling it with his unique brand of unfettered ball-bashing. A different Afridi, answering to the name of Shaheen Shah, grabbed centrestage this time with a memorable opening burst that accounted for Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul inside the first three overs; for good measure, he returned at the death to send lone ranger Kohli packing.
More than any team, India are dependent on their top three to set the tone. Another lost toss for Virat Kohli meant the onus was on the batsmen to do the running, because the threat of dew was genuine enough for India to arm themselves with the insurance of a few additional runs. For that to eventuate, it was essential that Rohit and Rahul lay the platform for Kohli and the middle order to launch from.
For all the favouritism in the lead-up to the start of their Super 12 campaign, India’s batting unit came into the World Cup seriously undercooked. Rahul alone of the top six inspired confidence and belief. He had a splendid IPL 2021, finishing third on the list of leading run-scorers and amassing those runs (626) with flair, class and aggression. Kohli did finish with more than 400, but by his own lofty standards, he had a passable season. The dominant beast of the past was conspicuous by its absence, the new-look Kohli almost a workmanlike image of his once-imperious self.
Rishabh Pant batted out of character for Delhi Capitals, while the Mumbai Indians trio of Rohit, Suryakumar Yadav and Hardik Pandya occupied various levels of the middling run-making spectrum. The excellent pitches at the ICC Academy grounds, where India comfortably chased down competitive totals against England and Australia in the warm-up games, might have triggered a false sense of security and optimism among the Indian fans when the reality was that a top-order collapse could have an irrevocably deleterious effect of the sort that played out on a somewhat sticky first-half deck at the Dubai International Stadium.
Afridi’s preferred mode of operation is a particularly dangerous proposition for India’s batsmen. Historically, India have had issues against the ball from the left-arm seamer coming back into the right-hander. It’s precisely this delivery which saw the backs of both Rohit and Rahul, the former trapped in front by a wicked yorker in the first over and the latter bowled through the gate in the third.
Those early strikes necessitated the shifting of focus from kicking on to rebuilding, even if it had to be carried out by men who are well below their glorious best. Kohli, never short of motivation whatever be the stage, turned the clock back somewhat to guide the ship through turbulent waters, but except for a little while when he allowed Pant to call the shots during their fourth-wicket alliance, he was fighting a solitary battle which was never going to be enough against this Pakistan.
This Pakistan was supremely disciplined with the ball, unequivocally outstanding in the field. A reliance on cliches might tempt us to harp on the steel in their eyes and the intent in their body language, however fictional (or not) that might be. What’s undeniable is that for the duration of the Indian innings, they didn’t take their eye off the ball. The pacers were exemplary – Hasan Ali did go for a few, but more than made up with two wickets – while the spinners gave nothing away. Babar Azam’s captaincy was impeccable; he used the contrasting lengths of the boundaries to his team’s advantage, challenging batsmen to make the play and luring them to their doom in a masterclass on protecting short boundaries and exploiting the longer ones.
India weren’t unaware that they required the luxury of a few additional runs in the bank to guard against the impact of the dew when it was their turn to defend their total. But that awareness didn’t translate into tangible action. Kohli knew he couldn’t embrace aggression until there was at least a reasonable total on the board. When he perished with eight deliveries remaining, it was clear that 160 was beyond India.
Even 20 more than that might not have sufficed, given how beautifully Babar and the bubbly Mohammad Rizwan set up the chase. Armed with the realisation that it was only a matter of time before the dew set it, they embraced caution – if not downright circumspection – early on, and then cut loose with ferocity. All the while, they ran superbly between the wickets, initially keeping India honest and then driving them ragged.
In Babar, Kohli might have seen a likeness of himself in a run-chase. In Pakistan, he would have gleaned a taste of what his team has done times without number. It must have been a difficult pill to swallow, even if it is just one match, one defeat.
R Kaushik is a senior cricket journalist who has followed the game closely for nearly three decades