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Oval stages cricket’s biggest showdown

June 18, 2017 2:01 AM
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LONDON - The mother of all battles. Cricket’s biggest showdown. In short, India v Pakistan is much more than a game, and that game just so happens to be only the second time the two sides meet in the final of a world event!

In many ways, it’s incredible that these two sides are actually meeting on this grand stage after India’s convincing triumph in the group stage, essentially forcing their rivals to go undefeated to stay alive.

But how things have changed in the two weeks since! Pakistan stunned the world’s No. 1 side in South Africa and also destroyed England, the tournament favourite. And what’s a Pakistan winning run without one of those mad scrambles, like the one that came against Sri Lanka? Out of nowhere, Pakistan has lifted itself to set a date with destiny.

India, meanwhile, have done exactly what was expected. Apart from a blip against Sri Lanka, they have been clinical and looked the team to beat in the competition. The batting has looked as strong as ever, but, incredibly, India now also have one of the best bowling attacks in world cricket.

In fact, it’s in the bowling department where there’s hardly anything to differentiate between India and Pakistan. Both sides have brilliant pacers who are backed by tidy spinners. They also have a knack of picking wickets in the middle overs – a phase of the game that has turned out to be the most crucial after the new fielding restrictions. India and Pakistan have got 18 wickets each from their four matches between overs 11 and 40.

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Where India stands out though is its ability to handle pressure in big matches. In Mickey Arthur’s own words, Pakistan played the occasion last time instead of the opposition. This time, the occasion is much bigger, but Arthur has promised that their plans are based on “us” rather than “them”. If they can do that, the Edgbaston match and all the other previous encounters could well be history.

Virat Kohli-led India are favourites to retain the Champions Trophy on Sunday, but they would probably have preferred to face different opponents than arch-rivals Pakistan in what is sure to be a highly-charged final.

The neighbouring countries have moved on from years of political conflicts but emotions will run high as millions of supporters around the world watch the first major final between two South Asian giants since the 2007 World T20.

Pakistan were the lowest-ranked side going into the tournament and produced a shambolic performance in their heavy opening defeat by India. As they have done many times before, however, Pakistan suddenly found their form with wins over top-ranked South Africa and Sri Lanka before delivering an outstanding all-round display to stun previously unbeaten hosts England in the semi-finals.

India suffered a shock loss to Sri Lanka in the group stage before overwhelming Bangladesh in the semis and their captain Virat Kohli has been impressed by Pakistan’s resurgence.

“Their turnaround has been magnificent,” said Kohli. “Obviously, if you reach the finals you have to play some good cricket and credit to them, they’ve turned around things for themselves really well.”

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Pakistan, without their leading fast bowler Mohammad Amir due to injury, strangled the usually free-scoring England batsmen on a slow wicket in Cardiff with a disciplined display of bowling and fielding. The Oval pitch should be more favourable for batsmen but India, who have beaten Pakistan in eight of their 10 World Cup and Champions Trophy meetings, will not be complacent.

Pakistan’s rejuvenation has been built around the runs of young opener Fakhar Zaman and the experienced Azhar Ali, while Hasan Ali and Junaid Khan stepped up to compensate for the absence of Amir who is expected to be fit for the final.

Captain Sarfraz said they had quickly forgotten the opening loss to India and simply focused on the next game in their bid to win the Champions Trophy for the first time. “After the India match, we just motivated the guys,” he said. “Don’t worry about the India match. This is gone. If we play good cricket, definitely we will win this tournament.”

Sarfaraz Ahmed has vowed to continue playing "attacking and positive" cricket in tomorrow's Champions Trophy final against India. "We have played attacking cricket so far and we will continue playing positive cricket in tomorrow's match," Ahmed said. "I want to thank the people of Pakistan for their prayers and the way they have backed the team following consecutive wins," Ahmed said. "We are a young team and are very excited and motivated for the game," Sarfaraz said, responding to an Indian journalist's question regarding emotions ahead of the game. “We are ready with our plans for the match against India,” a confident Sarfraz told the media at the Oval. “I am not going to reveal my plans, but we have a strategy prepared for the match.” He confirmed that M Aamir is fit to play the final but added that a decision has not been on which player to bench for the final. “We will see in the morning that who will sit out, whether we will go out with spinner or another fast bowler is not yet decided,” he said.

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Indian captain Virat Kohli has praised the remarkable comeback of Pakistan cricket team in ICC Champions Trophy ahead of the final between the traditional rivals on Sunday. Kohli said that he is aware of Pakistan’s talent and believe that Pakistan can beat any side of the world on its day. “Everyone is aware of the kind of talent they have in their team, and on their day they can beat any side in the world. That's the kind of players they have, and that's the kind of ability they have in their side. So we're quite aware of that,” Kohli said. “I'm sure it's going to be a very good -- very well-contested match. Both teams obviously want to win the final. They've worked really hard to be there, to stand in the final, and I'm sure that every player is going to come out and give their 120 per cent, and if 11 players from both sides end up doing that, it's going to be an exciting encounter,” he added. Kohli added that his team is neither too intimidated nor too arrogant about what it is doing.

There is a reserve day for the final but it’s unlikely to be needed, for the sun has been out through the week in London and is forecast at 30 degrees tomorrow. It automatically means that teams from subcontinent will feel at home, and hopefully produce some of their best cricket. The pitch is fresh and wasn’t used for any of the earlier games in the tournament. It makes for a fascinating contest as the conditions are batsmen-friendly, but the sides playing have the best bowling units.

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Yuvraj Singh: He didn’t get to bat or bowl in his 300th ODI, but Pakistan will be aware of the threat that Yuvraj poses if he does get a chance. The left-hander turned the course of India’s innings, and thus the match, when he smashed a 32-ball 53 against Pakistan in Edgbaston. He’ll have a big job against a rejuvenated attack this time, but Yuvraj too is known to lift his game for big occasions.

Babar Azam: Azam is among Pakistan’s biggest strengths with the bat, already making five centuries and six half-centuries in just 28 ODIs. He hasn’t made massive runs in the Champions Trophy so far, but did make crucial contributions against South Africa and England. On a batting-friendly track, Azam at No. 3 could well play a pivotal role for Pakistan.

The opening batsman is the difference between the Pakistan side that was destroyed by India at Edgbaston and the one that has got on a dream run since. Zaman has scores of 31, 50 and 57 at a strike-rate above 117, giving Pakistan the much needed quick starts. He’s in form, he’s daring and fearless. Just what Pakistan will need to ease its nerves on a big day.

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