DAMBULLA: It will be a battle of attrition when arch rivals India and Pakistan resume their high-voltage cricketing rivalry after eight months in an Asia Cup match on Saturday.
The battle lines have been drawn for what is regarded as most sought-after match in world cricket, which dwarfs the interest evinced even in the Ashes series between England and Australia.
Though the wicket is not ideal for an ODI, it should produce an electrifying contest as Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Shahid Afridi’s men fight for supremacy at the Rangiri Dambulla international stadium.
The last time the teams met across the square, Pakistan had the measure of India in the Champions Trophy in South Africa last September and Dhoni’s legion would be aching for revenge.
Pakistan are known to be dangerously volatile when put in a do-or-die situation, as is the situation now after they lost their first match to Sri Lanka.
A determined and aggressive Afridi could spoil India’s party if he cuts loose in the middle, as he did against the Lankans.
The Akmal brothers, Umar and Kamran, are immensely capable of turning the match on its head when the chips are down. Salman Butt and Shoaib Malik also have the reputation to destroy any attack on their day.
But man to man, India have a superior batting unit. Unlike Pakistan, India have a deep batting line-up, with Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan capable of pulling their side out of crisis.
But it will be interesting to see how Virender Sehwag responds to the Pakistan challenge. On return from a shoulder injury, he made 11 against Bangladesh, struggling to move back and across the stumps during his 14-ball tenure at the square.
Gautam Gambhir worked hard for his 82 against Bangladesh, but would carry the confidence of spending time in the middle into the game against Pakistan.
A determined Dhoni was also among the runs (38 not out in 45 balls). Gambhir and Dhoni’s form aside, India would need significant contributions from Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma to win this game.
Both teams have a reasonably good bowling line-up. If Shoaib Akthar, who hobbled out with a strained left knee after a practice session, finds the rhythm which had deserted him in the game against Lanka, it would be an intense contest in the middle.
The Rawalpindi Express could be very effective against the Indian batters who have struggled against the short-pitched ball.
The wicket may not assist his pace, but he can certainly extract bounce to trouble Gambhir, Raina and Rohit.
"When it comes to 50-overs cricket, we have more options against the short ball. We don’t have to play at each ball. We can either leave it or jab for a single. It is up to the individuals to cope up with it," said Dhoni.
Talking about the Shoaib Akthar factor, the Indian captain said, "It will be a good contest. Akthar can be affective as he can bowl quick. But we will see how the boys cope against him."
Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer could also pose problems if they back their ability to move the ball with accuracy. As in the match against Sri Lanka, Afridi and Malik will share the spin bowling responsibilities, unless Pakistan replace old and slow Abdul Razzaq with off-break bowler Saeed Ajmal.
On the Indian bowling front, there is a cloud over Ahsish Nehra’s fitness, but the team is yet to take a call on his availability.
"Nehra is not 100 per cent fit. We will take a call tomorrow," said Dhoni.
In Nehra’s absence, Zaheer Khan would have to shoulder the responsibility of the Indian attack which has been far from impressive in the recent past. But Zaheer did look sharp and mean during India’s six-wicket win over Bangladesh.
If Praveen Kumar, who has been given more opportunities than his performance would command, does not deliver, the national selectors would do well to look at younger and better replacements for future national assignments.
Harbhajan Singh, who has been bowling well of late, and Ravindra Jadeja will have to back the fast bowlers if India are to come away with the honours.
Despite the intensity of the contest, Dhoni felt they would have to take every match they play seriously.
"We have to take every game seriously as it is. We have to play to win," said Dhoni.
If India beat Pakistan tomorrow, they will sail through to the finals, leaving Pakistan to play out an inconsequential match against Bangladesh.
But if Pakistan trounce India, they can hope to qualify for the June 24 title clash by extracting the bonus point against Bangladesh.
India: M S Dhoni (capt), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, Pragyan Ojha, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Praveen Kumar, Asish Nehra, Ashok Dinda, Ravichandran Ashwin, Sourabh Tiwari.
Pakistan: Shahid Afridi (capt), Salman Butt, Abdul Razzaq, Abdur Rehman, Asad Shafiq, Imran Farhat, Kamran Akmal, Mahammad Aamer, Mohammad Asif, Saaed Ajmal, Shahzaib Hassan, Shoaib Akthar, Shoaib Mallik, Umar Akmal, Umar Amin.(PTI)