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It is not a coincidence then that India and Pakistan have been involved in the most exciting matches in this tournament
September 23, 2007
This is a final not many would have predicted, yet it's one none can grudge. Like in the World Cup earlier this year, the two best teams in the tournament have made it to the end. A trans-Tasman final was a possibility before the semi-finals, but it is difficult to dispute that the tournament has now got the best possible climax: the subcontinental rivalry has the right combination of history, piquancy and edge for a thriller. Let's just hope it doesn't go the way of the World Cup final.
History will say India have the advantage. They have a 6-1 record against Pakistan in world championships including one bowl-out earlier in this tournament, and whispers from the Pakistan camp before the second semi-final suggested that they would have preferred to play Australia in the final, having beaten them already. But history counts for little in the middle, and Pakistan did break their jinx of having never beaten India in a world championship at the Champions Trophy in 2004. There is little to choose between the teams, and it might just boil down to who can hold their nerve best.
The two teams have a remarkable similarity to them. Both are without their big players - India without Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Zaheer Khan, and Pakistan without Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Yousuf and Shoaib Akhtar; they are under new captains; Pakistan have a new coach, India don't even have one; and they have used this tournament to blood some new and exciting players.
The result has been refreshingly positive. Both teams have shed lethargy, and a somewhat unhealthy dependence on their big players - perhaps not being in their shadow has helped the younger ones express themselves with greater freedom and take on more responsibility - and they have played a brand of cricket that is unlike them. Pakistan have been efficient and controlled rather than mercurial, while India have been energetic, even electrifying, in the field and between the wickets.
The main point of departure has been the strategy at the toss. India have defied conventional Twenty20 wisdom by choosing to set targets, and have won all their matches batting first, whereas Pakistan have won their last three matches chasing. In the earlier clash between the two rivals India batted first, Pakistan chased and ended up with an identical score. Maybe they should dispense with the toss altogether at the final.
On balance the teams are evenly matched, but India have the edge in their batting. All their batsmen have fired in the tournament whereas Pakistan's have wobbled at the top, and then India have the better wicketkeeper-batsman.
Yet this is evened out by Pakistan's slight superiority in the bowling department. India's pace bowlers have responded magnificently to the challenge of this new format and Harbhajan Singh has been impossible to cart away, but despite Joginder Sharma's great last over against Australia they have a weak fifth bowler and no viable back-up.
Compare this to Pakistan, who have an all-round attack with the variety of Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez, both genuine allrounders in one-day cricket, to back up the pace bowlers and Shahid Afridi. And in Umar Gul, they have the best bowler in the tournament so far, a man to stop the runs and take wickets just when opposing teams are looking at hitting the pedal.
Most importantly the teams have been led by exactly the kind of men each required. Pakistan, always brilliant but always brittle, have benefited from Malik's composure, which has also been a feature of his batting. He was a gamble for Pakistan, and it is clear that the absence of seniors and some of the divisive forces in the team has helped him take charge. The new coach, Geoff Lawson, has melted into the background and that's the way it ought to be.
For India, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been impressive. He has a terrific cricket brain and has brought the ideal combination of aggressiveness and method to his captaincy. Even though the big guys stayed at home, he had other players far senior to him in the team, some of whom had even been spoken of as future captains. Despite this he has looked in command and has displayed a clear-headedness when it comes to taking important decisions. He opted to bowl the part-timers in the bowl-out (he didn't want to put pressure on his pace bowlers) and held back his potentially weakest bowler for the last over against Australia (he wanted Joginder to bowl when the pressure would be greater on the batsmen than him).
It is not a coincidence then that India and Pakistan have been involved in the most exciting matches in this tournament. Anything less than an electrifying final tomorrow would be a disappointment.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo MagazineFeeds: Sambit Bal
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