DUBAI: Arguably the greatest rivalry in cricket returns on Sunday when Pakistan and India collide in a blockbuster Group ‘A’ opener of the Asia Cup at the Dubai International Stadium although both sides will be missing their pace spearheads.

Pakistan are without the injured Shaheen Shah Afridi, a vital cog of their side that beat India the last time the two nations clashed — incidentally also in Dubai, while their arch-rivals will have to make do without Jasprit Bumrah.

Babar Azam’s Pakistan were also forced to make a late change on Friday, recalling Hasan Ali in place of fellow fast-bowling all-rounder Mohammad Wasim, who sufffered a back injury during training.

The Pakistan skipper, however, was confident with the options he has and said his side’s victory over India at the Twenty20 World Cup last year would be a reference point.

“Shaheen is one of our best bowlers, he bowls with aggression and he leads the attack, so we will miss him,” Babar told a news conference on Saturday.

“If Shaheen was there, it would have been a different game. But our other bowlers are also good, we have high confidence in the camp.

“We have a squad full of quality cricketers and match-winners, who will step-up and take additional responsibility during the tournament.

“In [last year’s] T20 World Cup [where Pakistan reached the semi-finals], we have already demonstrated we are not a one-man squad. In five league matches, we had five different player of the matches.

“Everyone waits for the match between India and Pakistan. It is important to enjoy this game. Our bench strength is strong, injuries can happen, and it is part and parcel. I have faith in every player.”

Babar, though, wasn’t dwelling too much on the last game between the two sides, which was Pakistan’s first victory over their arch-rivals in a World Cup fixture.

“For me, every match is important and as captain, it is my job to give 100 per cent and we just try to give our best,” he said. “The T20 World Cup match has passed, it would be a new day tomorrow. You have the confidence, but it all boils down to the game day.”

Despite the hostile rivalry, players of both India and Pakistan have exchanged greetings during practice sessions. Pictures and videos of Babar and India superstar Virat Kohli meeting on the sidelines of a practice session went viral.

“As a sportsman, you try to meet different players,” Babar said. “We have met everyone, it is normal. You try and talk to players about cricket and other things.”

On Friday night, there was another video of a candid conversation between Babar and his Indian counterpart Rohit Sharma, who was also looking forward to Sunday’s clash.

“When we are on the ground, fans want to see the match as well as meet players,” Sharma told a news conference on Saturday. “As far as the rivalry is concerned when two quality teams play then we see a good match. As players, we just want to focus on our game.”

Like Babar, Sharma reckons that last year’s clash will no bearing on Sunday’s match.

“Yes, that loss did hurt us but some time has passed since that game was played,” he said. “So, for us, we have got another challenge in front of us now. There is no point thinking about that loss now.

“Since then, we have played a lot of games and we have tried to correct our mistakes. You learn from mistakes, it is a fresh start for us. The team is coming out of playing a lot of T20 cricket, and we know now to win games. Opposition will challenge you, but you need to find ways to counter that. The losses obviously hurt, but we have moved on from that loss.”

Rohit was also hoping star batter Kohli, who returns to the side after being rested for India’s series against the West Indies and Zimbabwe, will come up with a big performance on Sunday.

“From what I have seen, Virat is looking in good touch, he is working hard on his batting,” said Sharma. “It is not looking like he is thinking about things a lot. There are no extra-ordinary changes.

“He is coming back after one month, there is freshness that we can spot. He is looking in good touch, we try to give everyone a chance to prepare to the best of their ability. Preparation wise, we have put our best foot forward.” he added.

Sunday’s game could be the first of three matches between India and Pakistan during the Asia Cup.

With Hong Kong being the other team in Group ‘A’, the two subcontinental giants are favourites to advance to the round-robin Super Four stage. Beyond that, they could also meet in a tantalising title clash.

It will be Sunday’s clash, though, that will set the tone for the campaign ahead for both Pakistan and India.

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2022

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