Pakistan face India today in do-or-die encounter – Newspaper

Pakistan face early elimination from the 2024 T20 World Cup if they lose to arch-rivals India today.

A MATCH that was expected to be politically loaded fun on Long Island, is now a do-or-die encounter. Pakistan face early elimination from the 2024 T20 World Cup if they lose to arch-rivals India today (Sunday).

The odds are stacked he­a­vily against Babar Azam’s team who make their first appearance in New York following a terrible run of form and a humiliating defeat to co-hosts USA. But, as the Frank Sinatra song about New York goes, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

That is a hope that Pak­is­tan must cling to, and while the task is a difficult one, it isn’t mission impossible. The reasons to be optimistic are few, but they do exist. The first is the essential unpredictability of T20 cricket. More than any other form of the great game, one sensational innings or a few bad overs can be decisive.

Another is the pitch at the new stadium in Nassau. In India’s game against Ireland, the pitch was untrustworthy and dangerous, with movement and sharp bounce off a length. Ireland’s batsmen lost their confidence as they collapsed to 96 all out. Although India won by eight wickets, all their batsmen except Rishab Pant found the pitch problematic, and Rohit Sharma retired injured when a sharp rising ball hit his elbow. If the pitch is similar, winning the toss and bowling first could decide the game.

A third reason is that the magnitude of the occasion can unnerve players. Admittedly, Pakistan’s psychological dominance was reversed over 20 years ago, but who knows whether a post-Modi-majority India team will remain the masters of Zen. All it takes is a freak incident, a stroke of outrageous fortune, or a moment of brilliance, and momentum shifts, pressure builds, and the game is gone.

Yet India, with a few rare exceptions, have outplayed Pakistan in world events. Pakistan’s greatest tournament victory over their nearest and rarest rivals was in the Champions Trophy Final at The Oval in 2017. Back then, Pakistan fans went into these contests with optimism that the random genius of their team might prevail. On that day, it did, as Fakhar Zaman blasted a hundred and Mohammad Amir flattened India’s top order.

A year earlier, Pakistan, under the gutsy grindology of Misbah ul Haq, had displaced India at the top of the world Test rankings. These moments are worth remembering because Pakistan were battling on all fronts — even with limited resources. What followed in the first reign of the ‘Babarite’ King of Cover Drives was a shedding of capabilities in everything but T20 cricket.

Now, in the second ‘Babarite’ era, Pakistan find themselves at their lowest ebb, only able to greet the uptown funk of the USA with absent spunk.

The flaws in Pakistan’s plan are glaring and widely documented, debated, and damned. The answer can only be to focus on the positives and accepting that Pakistan’s best hope is some individual brilliance. But who might summon this random genius?

Remarkably, seven years on, Fakhar remains the one man who might produce a magical innings for Pakistan. He is erratic, yes, but on his day he will be decisive. A second strength is the historical success of partnerships between Babar and Mohammad Rizwan. A third is the potential of a sensational spell from Haris Rauf. Before his injury, Shaheen Shah Afridi would have topped this list, but he is yet to show that he will again attain those heights.

Add in the opportunity for the fast bowling unit, on New York’s pitch, to destabilise India, and that leaves Pakistan, at best, with half a team capable of stealing this T20. India, by contrast, have match winners coming from all directions, every man a lethal weapon. A balanced team, riding high in form and confidence. That is the scale of the challenge facing the battered, bruised, and bereft band of ‘Babarites’.

Importantly, Pakistan must make the most of their selection. They need a replacement for Azam Khan, probably Saim Ayub; they need a spinner who might take decisive wickets, or at least control runs, neither of which is Shadab Khan; they should back the youth of Abbas Afridi over Amir’s ailing wiles; and they should work on mastering their emotions, which they shockingly failed to do in Dallas, for they have everything to lose.

The pressure is greatest on Babar, whose leadership with the bat and in the field is being heavily criticised and scrutinised. A defeat will make qualification effectively impossible. That’s how serious this match is. A win will need two others and a healthy run rate to see Pakistan into the second group stage, as well as add some doubt and stress to India’s qualification. USA will then have truly thrown a star-spangled cat among Asia’s strutting pigeons.

The best captains, however, are also lucky captains, and the outcome of the greatest show on Earth might rest on the toss of a coin. The best service that Babar can perform is to win the toss and bowl first. Lose that pre-match ritual and Pakistani hearts will sink into the soil.

Sad that it has come to this: Pakistan’s fortunes left dependent on luck. Unless, of course, we witness a work of random genius. In that aspiration, at least, Pakistan cricket, like another song about New York, is ever-changing but never changed.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2024

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