Indian batsmen need to fire in needle encounter

Cricket: Champions Trophy set to come alive as arch rivals clash today

Bonding With The Best: Indian cricketers do the team-huddle on the eve of their Champions Trophy clash against Pakistan at Centurion on Friday. AFPMore than a week after they arrived in South Africa, India finally begin their quest to regain a title they last won in 2002 – jointly with hosts Sri Lanka – against old foes Pakistan.

Contrary to the politically correct statements a majority of the players from both sides make, an Indo-Pak cricket encounter is not just another match. There is an added edge, a palpable tension, a wonderful confluence of emotions – including a touch of dread – when two of international cricket’s most colourful teams go head to head.

India’s overwhelming superiority over their arch rivals – Pakistan have won only one of seven shoot-outs -- in ICC competitions will count for precious little on the morrow. Mahendra Singh Dhoni doesn’t lay too much emphasis on history; injury-struck Younis Khan is out to create history of his own, setting the stage for a battle of skills, nerve, temperament and the mind. As most Indo-Pak matches invariably are.

Pakistan have more reason to feel upbeat than India do, given the sequence of events of the last few days. For starters, they have already got on the board, courtesy their scratchy five-wicket victory over the West Indies on Wednesday. For another, they are buoyed by the return of Younis, who sat out the Windies match after sustaining a hairline fracture, but has opted to brave the injury given the significance of the occasion.

The availability for selection of paceman Mohammad Asif lends another fascinating dimension to a varied bowling attack with teenaged left-arm quick Mohammad Aamer in the vanguard. Asif has just finished serving time following a one-year doping suspension, and while he is short on match practice, Pakistan will have to try extremely hard to resist the temptation of fielding him against an opposition whose measure he has had in the past.

Where Pakistan are spoilt for choices, India have at least one major selectorial headache, originating from Yuvraj Singh being ruled out for six weeks with a fracture in his right hand. The left-handed vice-captain is such a commanding figure in the middle-order that it is well nigh impossible to replace him. Who will take his place in the eleven is a point of great interest.

Yuvraj’s official replacement, Virat Kohli, arrived in Johannesburg on Friday morning and took full part in the afternoon practice session at SuperSport Park. Dhoni, however, will be wary of pitching Kohli into battle straightaway, mindful that in February 2008 in Australia, he plumped for Manoj Tiwari no more than 36 hours after his arrival in Brisbane as a late back-up, interestingly for Yuvraj, and made a 16-ball two, after which he has never played for the country again.

The choice boils down to between Kohli and Dinesh Kaarthick, with Abhishek Nayar lurking as a dark horse, but irrespective of whoever is picked, the responsibility on the big four -- Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid and Dhoni – will be massive.

More so because India’s bowling has appeared less than potent in the prolonged absence of pace spearhead Zaheer Khan. Ishant Sharma has been going through the wars in recent times, hardly recognisable as the tyro that shook up the world order since bursting forth some 20 months back, forcing Harbhajan Singh and a recalled, rejuvenated Ashish Nehra to function as both run-denying and wicket-taking options.

The Centurion surface looks straight out of the sub-continent, with no great pace and tending to play lower as the day wears on. Chasing a target of any substance isn’t the easiest of tasks under lights, making a toss a significant but certainly not decisive factor.
Come to think of it, there seldom is one decisive factor when it is India vs Pakistan. Just another cricket match? Not quite, really!

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