India vs Pakistan: Champions Trophy clash will be decided by how Virat Kohli and Co tackle pace brigade

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Champions Trophy
India's captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni (L) and Virat Kohli (C) run between the wickets as Pakistan's Mohammad Amir looks on during the World T20 cricket tournament match between India and Pakistan at the Eden Gardens cricket stadium in Kolkata on March 19, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Prakash SINGH

A pacer from Pakistan steams in from one of those intimidating long run-ups. A gully, a point, a couple of slips and the third man all wait in anticipation. An Indian batsman in his stance is braced for battle. He taps and double taps the pitch. The eyes are transfixed on the bowler who by now is flying on grass.

The crowd in the backdrop is covered with a mix of India and Pakistan flags. Fans of each section run the risk of losing their voice in a bid to chant louder than their counterparts. A moment later, when the ball is delivered, one of the two sets of fans is likely to damage their vocal chords completely. That will depend on whose warrior has triumphed in that battle.

For years, the bowler was Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis or Shoaib Akhtar. It was Imran Khan, before them. It will be one of Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz, Junaid Khan or Hasan Ali next week.

For years, the batsman was Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly or Rahul Dravid. It will be one of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma or Shikhar Dhawan next week. It may even be one of MS Dhoni or Yuvraj Singh if they decide to entertain one final time.

When India take on Pakistan on the cricket field, every move and every non-move is a battle. Various such minor battles form the artillery of the cricket war under the guise of an India-Pakistan game. But the battle that invariable influences the victor of the larger combat is the one between the bowlers — especially the faster men — of the Men in Green and those with the blades of the Men in Blue.

“I think this has been the case over the last 60 years,” Shahid Afridi reiterated in Kolkata about a year ago. He was the T20 captain of the national team, and he was talking about how Pakistan’s bowlers are expected to trump the Indian batsmen.

Afridi’s remark was ahead of Pakistan’s clash against India in the World T20 last year. In that match, though, Kohli’s unbeaten half-century ruled over Pakistan’s bowlers to see India through in a tricky chase. The victory even kept India’s record against Pakistan in World Cups spotless.

But the story at the Champions Trophy is slightly different. Barring 2013, when the Indian batsmen overcame the Pakistan attack and rain to enjoy a comfortable triumph, Pakistan have had the upper hand.

The Pakistan bowling unit combined to halt India’s chase of 302 short by 54 runs at Centurion in the 2009 edition. It was, however, Pakistan’s win at Birmingham in 2004 that epitomised the power of their bowling. Akhtar and Naved-ul-Hasan dismantled a starry Indian batting line up with four wickets each.

Akhtar bowled with ruthless pace, while Hasan nipped the ball around in favourable English conditions. India had no answer to the combination, as they were shot out for a paltry 200.

“We have a better record against India in the Champions Trophy, not in other competitions. We are looking to maintain that against them and it’s very exciting,” Sarfaraz Ahmed reminded the Indian camp of how the two teams compare at the Champions Trophy. He is now the Pakistan one-day captain, and he spoke from the confidence of the past victories at the pre-Champions Trophy press conference.

But the 2017 Birmingham clash between the fierce rivals on 4 June will not be decided by which of the two teams have had more success in the tournament. It could, like always, be decided by whoever shines brighter on the day — India’s batsmen or Pakistan’s bowlers.

India may not have Tendulkar and Sehwag to fight the thunderbolts of Akram, Younis and Akhtar but they will have Rohit and Dhawan — the stars of the last Champions Trophy — to douse the early sparks from Amir, Wahab and Hasan.

But once the duels at the top are fought and forgotten, the stage will be set and all other skirmishes will take a backseat as Kohli and Amir collide — today’s version of Tendulkar vs Akhtar. If their Asia Cup battle was a preview, the Champions Trophy bout could be a blockbuster.

It was Amir’s first encounter against the Indians since his return from the fixing suspension. He was a prodigy of world-class talent before the scandal in 2010. Kohli at that time was yet to find his feet in international cricket.

Six years later, Kohli was one of the best batsmen in the world. And, Amir had to reassure the world, and himself, that his special talent had not withered away with the fixing fiasco.

Pakistan were blown away for 83 in the Asia Cup T20 encounter in Dhaka. Even the most loyal of fans would have resigned themselves to a night of shame. But for the four overs that Amir bowled, he sparked hope where there was none.

Pakistan’s left-arm pacer swung the ball at pace, and swung it late. His deliveries appeared to be drifting away from Rohit and Ajinykya Rahane before they darted back in to hit their pads. Suresh Raina was no better at tackling the swing either. India stared at embarrassment 8 for three.

The spell had been a reminder of Amir’s ability to intimidate. But in Kohli, he faced his master. For the 15-odd balls that the battle lasted, the Indian batsman showed why he stood out from the crowd.

Amir had been spewing venom. Yet, Kohli was not ready to be bitten. He brought his bat down quicker than Amir’s ball could jag back in and was sharp enough to move the bat out of path of a delivery that would whizz past him. Eventually, Kohli conquered Amir. India conquered Pakistan. But the wonders of both the teams had enthralled.

“I would like to complement Mohammad Amir for the way he bowled. I actually congratulated him while he was bowling. I was so happy to play such an amazing spell. He is a world-class bowler,” were Kohli’s words of praise for Amir after the game. A few days later, Kohli would go on to would lord over Amir once again in India’s World T20 triumph over Pakistan.

Months down the line, Amir was still in awe of Kohli’s Asia Cup knock while he spot to The Times of India. “Kohli certainly is the best (batsman) in the world, and is having a great run at the moment. The Asia Cup encounter is a case in point. The wicket wasn’t the easiest to bat on, and India were in a spot of bother when Kohli walked in.”

But all the mutual respect and admiration the two have showcased over the past year will be left in the pavilion come game time on 4 June.

The characters may have changed, but the script will remain the same. Pakistan’s battery of pacers will have their ammunition loaded. India’s batsmen will have their blades sharpened. Whoever makes the swifter move will live to tell a tale of glory.

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