The unpredictable tag is one that has dogged Pakistan’s cricket team in all formats for too many years. Yet, against their biggest rivals India at the Asia Cup on Sunday, it is one they will for once be hoping to embrace.
The match will be Pakistan’s first of the competition, which was exactly the case the last time the two neighbors faced off, at last year’s one-day World Cup. India triumphed emphatically on that occasion in Australia. And when Pakistan followed it up with an even heavier defeat to the West Indies, it appeared their campaign would end in ignominy. Those with experience of watching Pakistan were not yet ready to write them off, however. Going into a match with one of the tournament favorites South Africa, Proteas coach Russell Domingo coined the term “predictably unpredictable” to describe their opponents. His comment would prove all too accurate as Pakistan triumphed against the odds.
Since then, though, Pakistan have been a little too predictable, all for the wrong reasons. The past year has seen defeats to Bangladesh in both one-day and Twenty20 international series, while they have now lost 10 of their last 12 matches in limited-overs cricket, taking in contests with England and New Zealand.
It is far from ideal preparation going into two big Twenty20 competitions, with the World T20, when Pakistan will also be taking on India, following on almost immediately from the Asia Cup in Bangladesh. Adding to the disordered preparations, it was only confirmed on Thursday that Pakistan would even make the trip to India for the World Twenty20 after the government provided their permission.
While that issue has been resolved, doubt still remains about who the Pakistan T20 captain will be going forward. On the eve of the Asia Cup, the current incumbent Shahid Afridi revealed that he was reconsidering his decision to retire after the World T20.
Afridi is already in his second spell in charge of the team, as one of five men to hold the position since 2007. The contrast could not be sharper with their opponents in Saturday’s eagerly anticipated showdown in Mirpur.
India have had the same man in charge for the last nine years. And, while there were questions asked about whether he should remain in the role just a few months ago, India have arguably reaped the benefits of the consistency brought from Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s continued leadership.
Having already stepped down from the Test captaincy at the end of 2014, Dhoni faced pressure to do the same for the limited-overs teams after a shock series defeat to Bangladesh last year and home losses on both ODI and Two series against South Africa.
But Dhoni withstood the pressure, and under him results have seen a steep upturn at the start of 2016.It doesn’t get much better than whitewashing Australia in their own backyard, and they have maintained that momentum with a 2-1 series triumph over Sri Lanka and a convincing win to open up the Asia Cup on Wednesday.
In contrast to the uncertainty and lack of form surrounding Pakistan’s squad, India are firing on all cylinders. Against hosts Bangladesh, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina were caught out by the greenness of the pitch, but Rohit Sharma and later newcomer Hardik Pandya came up with the goods to mount a sizeable total. With the ball, India’s options suddenly look plentiful, too, after veteran Ashish Nehra took three wickets.
With everything pointing toward another India victory, Pakistan will have their work cut out to prove that the old adage of never writing them off remains true.
Prediction: Pakistan certainly still have some quality in their ranks, but both their recent form in Twenty20 cricket, suffering two emphatic defeats to New Zealand, and their history against India in the format, losing five of six matches, offers little encouragement. Add to that the supreme way India are playing right now and that, unlike Pakistan, they have already had a match at the Shere Bangla National Stadium, and Dhoni’s men should be celebrating again on Saturday.