India strong favourites in traditional rivalry searching for spark
Pakistan will have to overcome an opposition with better personnel, and with their own prep having been hit
You could go with Albert Einstein reminding you madness is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You could try a variant of Richard Feynman's famous quote about quantum theory and apply it to Pakistan cricket: if you think you understand it, you probably don't. But it doesn't take a genius of any sort to figure out that at present, India's dominant record over Pakistan stems no longer from voodoo, superstition, jinxes, or even spooky quantum mechanical equations. When Virat Kohli's men walk out against Babar Azam's on Sunday, they're heavily fancied to maintain their perfect World Cup record because of the rather boring, plain fact that they possess the better players.
It's worth acknowledging the elephant in the room: a Pakistan win tomorrow would be good for cricket. The longer India's streak continues, the weaker this fixture's claim to being an elite, top-tier contest becomes. An India-Pakistan contest that no longer commands the same prestige cannot be good for a sport that desperately needs this rivalry to deliver every chance it gets because - to acknowledge the second elephant in this rather overcrowded room - these games don't come around as often as they should. The reasons for that are not cricketing, but it's the sport that bears the brunt of it.
Worryingly, games between these sides at ICC tournament level of late haven't produced engaging, high-quality cricket for the best part of the last decade. The contest has owed its jeopardy for the most part to the historical rivalry between the Indian and Pakistan camps - on and off the field - rather than to finely poised matches between two evenly matched sides. Since the 2011 ODI World Cup semifinal, five World Cup games between these two sides have all produced comprehensive Indian wins, by eight wickets, seven wickets, 76 runs, six wickets and 89 runs respectively. India pulled ahead early in all those games, and stayed there until Pakistan were eventually ground out.
For India, there seems to be little to worry about. Their two warm-up games against England and Australia tells the story of a side in complete control of their preparations, settled despite the various combinations and personnel they can choose to deploy on any given day. The second half of IPL 2021 concluded last week in the UAE; India could scarcely have enjoyed a better lead-up to the tournament. Their T20 record against Pakistan reads seven wins in eight games. On paper, there's little to worry them, and for all of the drama and theatre of an India-Pakistan fixture, no World Cup game has ever been quite as predictable as this.
If all of that seems confronting for Pakistan, that's because it is. That Pakistan go into their opener such heavy underdogs isn't captain Babar's fault, but it is his problem to try and solve. Pakistan, too, have had recent practice in the UAE; the second half of the Pakistan Super League took place there in June. But while the Indian squad was taking part in the IPL, Pakistan were watching their preparation plans go up in smoke as New Zealand and England pulled out of tours last-minute. A National T20 Cup pushed forward to give the World Cup squad some competitive practice will have helped, even if it isn't quite the same thing.
India's only problem, if you can call it that, may revolve around how to fit the hugely talented Ishan Kishan into a top four that will likely comprise of KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav. Pakistan, meanwhile, are more of less settled with their line-up, in the way someone who can't afford a luxury car doesn't have to worry about which might be the best one to buy. The only conundrum for Pakistan seems to be how to fit Haider Ali into a middle order currently occupied by Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez, two players who have over the past proven famously difficult to dislodge from the side.
India: LLWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
KL Rahul has mastered the art of getting runs in T20 cricket, but over the past couple of years, the question that has dogged him is whether he has been getting them at the optimum pace. Rahul said at the end of IPL 2021 that he didn't always bat "the way he wanted to" with Punjab Kings because the team dynamics dictated something else. He ended IPL 2021 with a breaking-the-shackles 98* off 42, and in the warm-ups, he's hit 51 off 24 and 39 off 31. Will India's greater depth free Rahul up to be a no-inhibitions T20 batter? It'll be interesting to see.
Pakistan don't so much have a template for triumph so much as a hope that Fakhar Zaman can hit the heights he did four years ago in a high-stakes game against India. And while India wised after that Champions Trophy final in the way they bowled to him, the left-hander has started to hit form at just the right time. He was Pakistan's best player in the warm-ups against West Indies and South Africa, smashing 98 in 52 balls without once being dismissed. Batting one drop rather than opener might free him off the pressure of getting his team off to a flyer. With Babar and Mohammad Rizwan masters at setting an innings up, Fakhar has the license to free his arms.
There isn't much between R Ashwin and Varun Chakravarthy for the main spinner's role. The KKR man is perhaps a slight favourite to get the nod based on recent form. Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Mohammed Shami for a fast-bowling berth is also perhaps a toss-up. Neither was brilliant in the warm-ups, though Shami didn't bowl in the second, so Bhuvneshwar may just edge it.
India (probable): 1 KL Rahul 2 Rohit Sharma 3 Virat Kohli (capt) 4 Suryakumar Yadav 5 Rishabh Pant (wk) 6 Hardik Pandya 7 Ravindra Jadeja 8 Shardul Thakur 9 Varun Chakravarthy/R Ashwin 10 Bhuvneshwar Kumar/Mohammed Shami 11 Jasprit Bumrah
Pakistan have named a 12-man squad already. One of Haider Ali or Mohammad Hafeez are likely to miss out.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Babar Azam (capt) 2 Mohammad Rizwan (wk) 3 Fakhar Zaman 4 Mohammad Hafeez/Haider Ali 5 Shoaib Malik 6 Asif Ali 7 Shadab Khan 8 Imad Wasim 9 Hasan Ali 10 Haris Rauf 11 Shaheen Shah Afridi
Pitch and conditions
The first round of the T20 World Cup saw the UAE fixtures take place in Abu Dhabi, but the pitch in Dubai is expected to favour the slower bowlers. Even the quicks are likely best served by varying their pace and bowling more cutters than express pace, with lower scores likely to be competitive.
Stats and trivia
- India's current streak of five successive T20 World Cup wins over Pakistan is the joint longest in the competition, along with West Indies over England and Pakistan over Bangladesh.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000