India vs Pakistan: The much-awaited battle

India's M S Dhoni (right) and captain Virat Kohli look relaxed as they arrive for a training session at Old Trafford on Saturday. AFP

K L Rahul had got out to a duck against Pakistan in the Under-19 World Cup in 2010 in New Zealand and that had left him rankled. Not only was it a World Cup game, it was against Pakistan. So, when he got a 93 against the same side in the final of the 2013 Asian Emerging Team’s Cup (U-23) to fashion India’s win he felt the monkey was off his back.

“To get out for a duck had hurt me a lot,” he had told DH after the tournament. “It was the World Cup and playing an India-Pakistan game was something I had dreamt about all my life. I was waiting for the next chance and it feels great to get back at them in the final.”

Rahul will play his first match against Pakistan at the senior level on Sunday and it couldn’t have been a bigger stage for the Karnataka batsman. It’s not quite the final but every India-Pakistan cricket match is like a final. On Saturday’s eve of the match, Virat Kohli did try to downplay the pressure factor ahead of the marquee clash insisting that this was just another game but it’s hard to believe that players don’t feel the butterflies in their stomach.

The expectations are sky-high and the stakes are way bigger than in any match. Of course, there’s pressure before every game but the tension before and during an India-Pakistan game is something else. It’s not for the faint-hearted whether one is on the field of the play or in the stands.

There’s a spoiler alert for the fans though. Hovercraft had the pitch covered for part of the day as the sun played hide and seek on the eve of the big clash. Both India and Pakistan are coming on the back of having lost one of their matches to unseasonal rain, and they will troop on to the ground on Sunday with an eye on the sky and prayers on their lips as there is a forecast for shower in the afternoon. Irrespective of how the weather pans out, no seat is going to be left unoccupied at the Old Trafford which houses about 20,000 spectators.

With two wins and washout, India have begun on a positive note. They have beaten both South Africa and Australia with a measure of comfort and notwithstanding the injury to the in-form Shikhar Dhawan, they would start as favourites against a side that has been less consistent than the usually fickle English weather.

The Sarfaraz Ahmed-led side lost to West Indies and Australia but on either side these two losses, they pulled off an upset win against the top-ranked England in a high-scoring match. Added to a washout against Sri Lanka, they have just three points from four matches. A win on Sunday will refuel their campaign, but a defeat will further deflate their chances of knockouts.

The possibility of rain will also force the Indian team to rejig their bowling combination. While the pitch looked brown and shorn of grass from the distance, the overheard conditions may just force Kohli to swap Kuldeep Yadav with Mohammad Shami. There’s a big chance of Vijay Shankar coming in place of Dhawan with Rahul naturally moving up to link with Rohit Sharma.

Pakistan attack too will be potent if conditions remain or turn cloudy. Left-arm seamer Mohammad Aamir has had the measure of some Indian batsmen in the past, including Kohli and Rohit, and the Indian batsmen will have to guard well against him. Right-arm pacer Hasan Ali can be dangerous on his day while Wahab Riaz’s experience can be never disregarded. So far, Pakistan’s batting has been good, but bowling and fielding have been a bit off the radar. So far, they have lived up to their reputation of being unpredictable and which Pakistan turn out on Sunday remains to be seen. But rest assured, India will be prepared for any challenge.

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