In a rare treat, one of the greatest rivalries in all of sport will play out in front of hundreds of millions of fans twice over the next five weeks when India and Pakistan face off in cricket’s Twenty20 format in both the Asia Cup and the World T20. Since the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, the two countries have played sparingly in international cricket, with even a planned series between the two in December breaking down.
But now a year after their much-hyped last meeting at the 2015 World Cup, which attracted an estimated audience of over a billion people, they are set to lock horns once more in what is cricket’s most explosive format. Unquestionably, it is the matchup in the World T20 group stage next month that holds greater significance for both teams, yet the chance to potentially get a major psychological advantage with a victory in the Asia Cup presents an enticing prize.
For Pakistan, a victory would be particularly significant. Just as at last year’s World Cup, when they came out on the losing end, it is they that will enter the Asia Cup meeting as significant underdogs.
Once the team to beat in Twenty20, reaching the first two finals of the World T20, winning the latter in 2009, Pakistan have struggled in recent years. The exclusion of its players from the world’s top domestic 20-over competition, the Indian Premier League, has certainly not helped matters, but of late the country’s struggles have stretched to both limited-overs formats.
That was evidenced in last month’s tour to New Zealand. There, after an opening victory, Pakistan were swept aside by the Black Caps in emphatic back-to-back T20 defeats, before losing both one-day international contests. Given that they were also whitewashed by England in three Twenty20 internationals in the United Araba Emirates last November, Pakistan’s form in the format inspires little confidence. Indeed, when they take to the field against India in Bangladesh on Feb. 27, they will not have tasted victory in a T20 match since beating Zimbabwe last September.
India, meanwhile, which will face Pakistan after taking on hosts Bangladesh, are heading in the opposite direction. Last year offered little to boast about in either T20Is or ODIs, putting severe pressure on veteran limited-overs captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. India’s only two Twenty20 series in 2015 saw them draw with Zimbabwe and lose on home soil to South Africa.
At the turn of the year there was much debate over whether Dhoni should remain at the helm until the World Twenty20, or hand the reins over to Virat Kohli, as he had done a year earlier in Test cricket. But the results this year have seen a sharp upturn in form. Their preparations for the Asia Cup and World T20 could not have begun any better than when securing a 3-0 series win over Australia, in Australia. Dhoni’s side followed up that historic victory by coming back from an opening defeat to claim a series triumph over Sri Lanka at home with back-to-back commanding victories.
With the batting lineup boosted by the emergence of Hardik Pandya, and the bowling attack given extra sizzle by Jasprit Bumrah’s starring introduction to international cricket, India appear to be firing on all cylinders. The same cannot be said of Pakistan, but India will know all too well that their great rivals are not a team that should ever be written off.