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All roads lead to Dubai as cricket's most colourful rivalry resumes

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Agarkar: Pakistan have a slight edge over India (6:04)

Ajit Agarkar and Saqlain Mushtaq on how playing back-to-back games in the brutal UAE heat could affect India (6:04)

Big Picture

There's nothing that can be said to downplay this game that'll convince anyone. A dead rubber, with both sides - in spite of Hong Kong's best efforts - already through to the next stage? Who cares? It's Pakistan versus India.

This tournament's format isn't one where finishing first has any meaningful advantage, either. Never mind that. These sides are odds-on favourites to meet again on September 28, in the final. So? It is this one game that counts.

When India and Pakistan meet, nothing but the present matters. It is cricket's most lucrative drawcard, a parochial rivalry meant for global consumption.

Besides, with these two juggernauts having eschewed bilateral ties for reasons that are anything but sporting, who would complain about one more India-Pakistan fixture? The real spice in this tie comes from its standalone appeal. These sides are so closely matched - and so vastly improved of late - it is hard to see where one can overwhelm the other.

India's fast bowling, for long the butt of jokes on the green side of the border, is perhaps more dynamic than it has ever been; Jasprit Bumrah is the top-ranked ODI bowler currently. Similarly, Pakistan's batting, for much of the past decade, a weakness to the point of parody, now boasts a lethal opening pair, followed by the highest-ranked batsman in the tournament in Babar Azam. Both are better fielding sides than they were 10 years ago: India by incremental, methodical improvement over the years, and Pakistan partly by the sharp-shock method Mickey Arthur's backroom staff has implemented over the last two years.

Every reference point stops at the Champions Trophy final; it is Year Zero. India, a side so inexorably on the rise, need to play Pakistan - and beat them - to confirm to themselves that that day at The Oval was a mere aberration, an outlier that does not loosen their grip on their neighbours in big matches. For Pakistan, it is the ultimate inspiration, their one saving grace. If they could overpower India in a match of that magnitude, does that mean this irksome psychological blip against their biggest rivals has finally been put to bed? Could it come to be recognised as a turning point instead of a fond memory they keep having to reach further back in time to reminisce upon?

India undoubtedly come into this with the more daunting form. Since that Champions Trophy meeting, they've won ODI series in the West Indies, Sri Lanka, and South Africa, and beaten Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka at home. The only series loss was a 2-1 reversal in England recently. Pakistan have by no means whimpered out since then, but they look more fallible. The wins, albeit convincing, have come in whitewashes against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. But they did suffer an embarrassing whitewash when they travelled to New Zealand earlier this year. They will have to play better cricket than they did on that tour, or, indeed, than was sufficient to see off Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

It remains to be seen how well India cope in Virat Kohli's absence, both as player and captain. In the recent Test series against England, India were so dependent on him that they began to look like a one-man batting side. Besides, it is hard to predict how much the game against Hong Kong, far more competitive than they'd bargained for, drained the team. But they have several matchwinners in the ODI side - some of whom sat out Tuesday's game. Even so, it should be fascinating to see how they react without the security blanket of their best player.

Pakistan have pondered playing another spinner on the dust-bowl in Dubai, since this tournament has had spin flourish and runs haven't been as bountiful as they are in limited-overs cricket these days. But India play spin well, and Pakistan don't have as much depth in the spin department as India do. There's also the question about what to do with Mohammad Amir, who is increasingly beginning to look like a shadow of the bowler that terrorised India last June.

Form guide

India WLLWW (last five completed games, most recent first)
Pakistan WWWWW

In the spotlight

Rohit Sharma has been given the responsibility of leading India in this tournament. Before the Asia Cup, he had only captained the national side once before, in a three-match series against Sri Lanka last year, where scores of 2 and 7 sandwiched a monumental, unbeaten 208 in the second game. That has been the pattern for him in the games since, too; it's either boom or bust. While he has two centuries in the 11 games since that double, he has failed to cross 25 on all of the other nine occasions. It serves to reiterate how crucial the first Powerplay will be for Pakistan when they field. Rohit has struggled for starts, and if Pakistan can capitalise on that, they would neutralise one of the most dangerous batsmen in modern-day cricket. Because once he gets going, he can become impossible to stop.

Sarfraz Ahmed hasn't had to bat in ten of the last 20 ODIs Pakistan have played, while Shoaib Malik has either not batted or finished not out in eight of his last 17 innings. What that does tell you is that Pakistan's top order has been taking care of business for well over a year now, leaving the middle order underused and, perhaps, a little protected too. If India can chip away at the top three early - something they failed to do in the Champions Trophy final and ended up paying for - it exposes Sarfraz, Shoaib and the still-wet-behind-the-ears Asif Ali, putting them in the spotlight in a high-pressure game. They have played good cameos in the past, but if they're required to rebuild the innings and prevent India from nibbling their way into the tail, it will be a challenge different to the anything they've faced in a long time.

Team news

The schedule hasn't been so kind to India, who have been forced to play back-to-back games in the brutal UAE heat. That meant some of their players were rested against Hong Kong. But a full-strength side should see the returns of Bumrah and Hardik Pandya, even as the twin wristspin threats of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal find conditions to their favour.

India (probable): 1 Shikhar Dhawan, 2 Rohit Sharma (capt), 3 KL Rahul, 4 Ambati Rayudu, 5 MS Dhoni (wk), 6 Kedhar Jadhav, 7 Hardik Pandya, 8 Bhuvneshwar Kumar 9 Kuldeep Yadav, 10 Yuzvendra Chahal, 11 Jasprit Bumrah

Pakistan might go in with an unchanged line-up; they will come into this game having had two days of rest, so fatigue shouldn't be an issue. The only question is whether it's worth playing an extra spinner, in which case left-armer Mohammad Nawaz becomes a factor. Junaid Khan might also want a crack at India - he holds a good record against them. In either case, the man to make way would most likely be Mohammad Amir.

Pakistan (probable): 1 Fakhar Zaman, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Shoaib Malik, 5 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 6 Asif Ali 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Faheem Ashraf, 9 Mohammad Amir/Junaid Khan/Mohammad Nawaz, 10 Hasan Ali, 11 Usman Khan

Pitch and conditions

Surfaces in Dubai have produced low scores this Asia Cup, with spin playing a vital role in keeping batsmen in check. That said, good fast bowling will be rewarded early on - you only need to look at Lasith Malinga's opening over against Bangladesh to know that - but the hot conditions mean fitness could become a key factor in the final analysis.

Stats and Trivia

  • Since these two sides met last time, Pakistan have only played 15 ODIs, winning 10 and losing five. India have played 31 ODIs, winning 23 and losing eight.

  • Shoaib Malik has played more matches against India than any player from either side has against the other. In 39 games, he has scored 1661 runs at an average of 47.45, with four hundreds, and has taken 22 wickets. India's most seasoned campaigner against Pakistan is MS Dhoni, with 1230 runs in 33 ODIs at an average of just under 56.