Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Shahid Afridi will be on opposite sides of one of sport’s fiercest divides on Saturday when they lead India and Pakistan out to do battle in Cricket’s World Twenty20 in Kolkata. But the veteran leaders also share plenty of common ground, not least what it’s like to be subjected to the scrutiny that comes with leading teams in the two most fanatic cricket countries in the world.
Both have tasted highs and extreme lows. For Afridi, it has been an especially bleak time leading into the most prestigious event in cricket’s shortest format. The all-rounder has already had an eventful career, punctuated by controversies and several retirements and returns from all three forms of international cricket, before, at the age of 36, focusing solely on the T20 form of the game. It is perhaps fitting, then, that he goes into this World T20 with everyone unsure of whether it will be his last act in international cricket, having cast doubt last month on his previous assertion that it would be his swansong.
If some critics had their way, he wouldn’t even have made it this far. Coming into the tournament his record as captain read a decidedly mixed 19 wins and 21 losses. The recent results were even less encouraging, with Pakistan having lost seven of 11 matches, including series defeats to England and New Zealand as well as a poor performance at the Asia Cup when they failed to make the final.
He has come in for criticism for his individual performances, too, having averaged under 10 for his last 10 innings. And then on the eve of the tournament, things got personal. Attempting to brush off the security concerns that had dominated Pakistan’s preparations for the World T20 and had even delayed their trip to India, Afridi caused uproar.
“We are more loved here than in Pakistan ... I have not enjoyed playing anywhere as much as I have in India,” he said.
The comments may have helped Pakistan’s cause in India, but back home there was outrage from many. One lawyer even served him with a legal notice, accusing him of committing treason.
His performance in Pakistan’s opening match of the World T20 on Wednesday could not have been timed any better. Taking on a Bangladesh team that had beaten Pakistan just two weeks earlier at the Asia Cup, Afridi moved himself up the batting order and struck 49 from just 19 balls to help his team to sizable total of 201. He then took two key wickets to ensure Bangladesh fell a long way short in their chase. He was the undoubted Man of the Match and if he can repeat that display with bat and ball against India he will not only put his side within touching distance of a place in the semifinals, but surely win back the support of many back home.
In contrast, defeat for India would all but end their hopes of advancing through a group that also includes Bangladesh, New Zealand and Australia. And it would heap the pressure back on Dhoni.
The 34-year-old has faced plenty of doubters since he announced his retirement from Test cricket at the end of 2014 to focus on the sport’s shorter formats. But the relinquishing of their 50-over World Cup title at the semifinal stage last year, coupled with a humbling one-day series loss to Bangladesh, led many to suggest that he might be wise to bow out from all forms of the game. Defeat to South Africa at home in both 50-over and Twenty20 series at the end of 2015 only exacerbated the questions over whether he should remain at the helm going into the sixth World T20.
Then came a spectacular revival. A first ever series whitewash over Australia in Australia was a stirring start before came a series victory over Sri Lanka and then the lifting of the Asia Cup. India had gone on a run of winning 10 of 11 matches, their batting order looked strong and in rich form and their bowling had variety with both quality pace and spin options. Meanwhile, young players Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah had injected fresh zest into the team.
All was going well. Perhaps too well. India went into their opening match of the World T20 as red-hot favorites not just to win the match but to win the tournament. All seemed to be going to plan when India bowled out their opponents for just 126. But on a turning pitch, India’s batsmen failed miserably against an inexperienced New Zealand spin attack, getting dismissed for just 79.
Indeed, it was only Dhoni, the man who has been repeatedly questioned over whether he can still deliver the big blows with the bat, who got going. This time it was those around him that sorely let him down. The media in India didn’t hold back, accusing the team of complacency and of causing a humiliation.
As it is, the situation is recoverable. A loss to Pakistan, though, could be as decisive as it would be painful, for both Dhoni and India.
Prediction: There is no doubt that the narrative has shifted somewhat going into Saturday’s showdown. Pakistan will surely be buoyed, particularly by the performance of their previously struggling batsmen. India, though, present a very different opponent, and must still be favorites. While there was perhaps some complacency in their opening outing, it is also true that they have struggled of late on low-scoring, turning pitches. The pitch at Eden Gardens in Kolkata, where Pakistan played their opening contest, has shown no sign of offering the same peril for batsmen as the one in Nagpur. And it is difficult to imagine India’s quality batting order all failing for a second game in a row. Pakistan should make it closer than their recent duels, but India look likely to prevail.