A grey shroud moved across the wet skies and as Melbourne stirred awake, some citizens were out running, a few walked their dogs, birds sought worms in damp parks, and at a church, full granite and grace, a couple got married. Just as trams did their Saturday runs, the sun peeped out and it was time for cricket.
If there is an ICC T20 World Cup match in town, the city didn’t offer any clue. Past the Yarra River and the Rod Laver Tennis Arena which will witness a post-Roger Federer-Serena Williams era Australian Open in January, drums could be heard. Soon the Melbourne Cricket Ground, with its history and the statues of Dennis Lillee and Shane Warne, loomed, and Indian fans were milling around.
Stage is set
Finally, there was a buzz as the stage is set for Sunday’s contest between India and Pakistan. Split by the Radcliffe Line and hamstrung by the absence of bilateral fixtures, the sub-continental neighbours have found their cricketing jousts being restricted to ICC events or continental tournaments like the Asia Cup. Over the last year, the rivals have faced-off thrice — once during the 2021 T20 World Cup and twice in the recent Asia Cup.
India may have an overall edge in ICC contests, but Pakistan has slowly turned the tide, winning a hyped encounter last year and equally will take heart from the 1-1 result in the recent Asia Cup. Rohit Sharma leads a team that should correct a historical vacuum: India last won an ICC tournament — the Champions Trophy — in 2013.
The Men in Blue step in without two stars — Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja. Even if the injured duo will be missed, the squad has the past to lean on for the feel-good vibe. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly skipped the inaugural 2007 edition and M.S. Dhoni led a young team to a cup-triumph. Even this current outfit has many players who, in Test whites, have humbled the Aussies in their backyard.
Rohit, K.L. Rahul and Virat Kohli lead the batting charts that draws its X-factor from Suryakumar Yadav. Against an incisive Pakistan attack, further strengthened by the return of pacer Shaheen Shah Afridi with his left-arm angle, India has to bat deep.
The likes of Hardik Pandya and Dinesh Karthik have a task on hand even while the option to field Rishabh Pant, due to his success in Australian conditions, is a lingering temptation. If Mohammed Shami plays, he has to fill Bumrah’s shoes and mask Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s rustiness. The spinners have a challenge, but vast grounds offer protection, provided the fielding delivers.
The regular trope from the days of Sunil Gavaskar and Imran Khan has been about Indian batting and Pakistani bowling. It may be true but the manner in which the Indian attack can control Pakistan skipper Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and the rest, will add a further critical thread. The whimsical Melbourne weather may queer the pitch, while Sunday will empty out streets from Rawalpindi to Rameswaram.
The teams (from):
India: Rohit Sharma (Capt.), K.L. Rahul (Vice-capt.), Virat Kohli, Suryakumar Yadav, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Rishabh Pant (wk), Hardik Pandya, Deepak Hooda, R. Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Axar Patel, Yuzvendra Chahal, Harshal Patel and Arshdeep Singh.
Pakistan: Babar Azam (Capt.), Shadab Khan (Vice-capt.), Asif Ali, Fakhar Zaman, Haider Ali, Haris Rauf, Iftikhar Ahmed, Khushdil Shah, Mohammad Hasnain, Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Mohammad Wasim, Naseem Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi and Shan Masood.
Match officials: Umpires: Marais Erasmus and Rod Tucker; TV umpire: Richard Kettleborough; Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle.
Match starts at 1.30 p.m. IST.