Agarkar: Toughest match of Dhoni’s career
India’s cricket team is undoubtedly, indisputably, unarguably, and by a massive distance, better than Pakistan’s cricket team. At football.
It was probably the only definitive bit of knowledge anyone could have gleaned from watching the two teams’ training sessions on the eve of their World T20 clash at the Eden Gardens. If Saturday’s big match involved goalposts and a large, inflated ball, India would lose no sleep over it.
It is, instead, a cricket match. And not just any cricket match. It is the cricket match that causes a spike in the frequency of Venkatesh Prasad sightings on Indian television in the days leading up to it. And of Aamer Sohail and Kiran More and Javed Miandad and Ajay Jadeja and Waqar Younis and Joginder Sharma and Misbah-ul-Haq.
It is an India-Pakistan clash at a World tournament, and it will come with the inevitable trappings. Famous people will sing national anthems. Massive names will be present among the massive numbers in attendance. Sachin Tendulkar will be there. So will Imran Khan. And Sunil Gavaskar. And Wasim Akram. And Kapil Dev. And Inzamam-ul-Haq.
In the middle of all this, India and Pakistan, the cricket teams, will try and tune out the constant swirl of India-Pakistan.
R Ashwin reinforced this during his pre-match conference on Friday, in a packed and insufficiently air-conditioned media room that evoked the pressure cooker cliché.
“This rivalry is huge,” he said. “It’s very hard to put a finger [on it] and say how huge it is. It’s probably bigger than the Ashes is. As far as the Indians go and the Pakistanis go, I don’t think they watch this as a game of cricket. It’s more of a border rivalry, they want to get one up on each other.
“So there is much more to this game rather than the game itself taking centrestage. As far as people are concerned, they put their emotions into it. For the players it’s about trying to keep the emotions aside and playing the game the best we can.”
It is something India have invariably managed to do against Pakistan at World events. In six World Cup meetings and four in the World T20, they have never lost. It’s the sort of record that can put pressure on both sides, but on this occasion India are under more of it, given that they are playing at home, and given that they were beaten soundly by New Zealand in their first game and therefore have to win this one. Over recent years, Pakistan have usually been underdogs going into matches against India, and on this occasion have the cushion of a big win in their opening game against Bangladesh.
“History can change, too,” Waqar Younis, Pakistan’s head coach, said. “We are confident, a little more this time because [India] can go out of the tournament also. They will be under a lot of pressure. We have to take it positively. We have won the last match, so there are lots of things going in our favour, hopefully. Yes, there is no doubt that our history hasn’t been so good but history can always be changed.
“In all the previous games, the pressure was on Pakistani team. This is the first time that the pressure is more on India – not arising from victory or defeat at the hands of Pakistan but because this is a very big tournament. I have been a cricketer all my years and it is impossible that India won’t be feeling the pressure. I am sure they will be feeling the pressure and we are going to take advantage of that.”
India arrived in Kolkata on Wednesday night, but only had an optional training session – which only Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane and Pawan Negi attended – on Thursday. Their first full session ahead of the match was on its eve. Ashwin said the light schedule was followed to allow the players to relax after the loss to New Zealand, and not put themselves under too much pressure.
“I think it was more about trying and relaxing,” he said. “It had nothing to do with who we are playing, what game we are playing and all that. We have been on the road for the last three months and we thought it’s time now to sit in the hotel room and revisit what we did in the last game. The best thing that we can do is to think for ourselves than sitting together and practising.
“What happens after a game like that is we tend to go into nervous practice, try and overdo everything, and eventually end up going into the match a little more tired than we actually should be. That’s the idea behind it.”
India’s practice session on Friday reflected this mindset, with the bowlers hardly taxing themselves and only the middle-order trio of Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni and Hardik Pandya spending any real length of time batting. Pakistan – after their unconvincing footballing warm-up – had a more traditional nets session, with the fast bowlers coming off their full run-ups and sending down a relatively large quota of deliveries.
Two training philosophies, neither definitely better or worse than the other, both geared to the same end: to keep minds focused on bat and ball, to tune out the crowds and the last-minute venue changes and the razzmatazz of the build-up. As Virat Kohli said before the start of the tournament, “On the field is the safest and quietest place for you”. And until they actually get on the field, the match will live a parallel existence that has little to do with the actual cricket. It might as well be a football game where Mohammad Irfan and a magically young-again Venkatesh Prasad are goalkeepers in a penalty shootout.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo