DUBAI: Matches between India and Pakistan tend to be high-voltage contests, where emotions come out in their purest form, but for Pakistan head coach Saqlain Mushtaq games between the arch-rivals are about spreading the message of love and kindness.

The images that came out of the ICC Academy in Dubai on Wednesday — one of which showed Pakistan skipper Babar Azam and Indian batting superstar Virat Kohli shake hands with broad smiles on their faces — heartened Saqlain.

The two teams, who don’t play bilateral cricket against each other because of tense diplomatic relations between the neighbouring countries, meet for the first time in more than ten months on Sunday for their Asia Cup opener.

Indian and Pakistani players meeting each other reminded Saqlain of his experience during the Cricket All-Stars event in the United States seven years ago where fans stitched the countries’ flags together.

“Few years ago I went to play the Cricket All-Stars and world cricket’s 25 big names were present there,” Saqlain said during a media talk on Thursday.

“However, only Pakistani and Indian fans were there [to watch the matches]. The fans had stitched both [the countries’] flags. It showed that cricket is not just sports or entertainment; it is something that unites the humanity.”

The former Pakistan skipper said it was natural to be emotional while playing India, but it was also an opportunity to send out a bigger message.

“We do have emotions for our country when we play a match but the pictures that came out yesterday portrayed a positive image,” said Saqlain. “We try our best to give the message of kindness and love and that is why our players go to meet the Indian players and its vice-versa.”

Pakistan will be missing pace spearhead Shaheen Shah Afridi after the left-armer was ruled out due to a knee injury he picked up during the national side’s recent Test tour to Sri Lanka.

Fast bowlers Haris Rauf and Naseem Shah — who is yet to make his Twenty20 International debut — will be Pakistan’s next best options. Pacer Mohammad Hasnain is also available for selection as he returns after fixing his bowling action which was declared illegal earlier this year.

Saqlain shrugged off chances of any doubts emerging due to Shaheen’s absence and said the other members of the Pakistan pace attack were experienced enough to handle responsibility.

“All three [Shaheen, Haris and Naseem] have executed Pakistan’s requirements and plans very well since a long time,” he said.

“The captain, myself as the head coach, and the support staff have full confidence in them. I think we shouldn’t have doubts in this situation.

“Shaheen, obviously, lead [the bowling] and isn’t available unfortunately. But all the three bowlers are such that in any given situation of the day, they can change the game,” added the head coach hours before fast bowling all-rounder Mohammad Wasim was taken to the hospital for an MRI scan after complaining of back pain.

The scorching heat in Dubai and how the six sides participating in the main round of the Asia Cup has also come into focus with temperatures soaring past 40 degrees Celsius. Saqlain believed much importance shouldn’t be attached to the conditions at play.

“I think these are the requirements of professionalism and you can’t think too much about these things,” said the 45-year-old.

“[The players] need to adapt, cope and adjust according to the plans and execute them.

“We are not soft and the players are expected to be tough. Also, I don’t think the weather is too bad.”

ROHIT PLAYS DOWN HYPE

India will be looking to avenge their defeat to Pakistan in last year’s T20 World Cup and go all the way in the continental tournament and their cap­t­a­in Rohit Sharma has also downplayed the hype surrounding Sunday’s game.

“Everyone watches the game and it’s a high-pressure game without a doubt, but within the group we want to create a normal atmosphere,” he told Star Sports.

“We don’t want to hype this game too much. It’s important to tell the players who haven’t played against Pakistan or played them just one or two times that it’s just another opposition.”

Sharma was the captain of the Indian team when they last won the Asia Cup in 2018. Kohli, who was the full-time captain back then, had given the tournament a miss but he is available this time around.

India, however, are without marquee pacers like Jasprit Bumrah and Harshal Patel in the tournament.

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2022

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