The intensity and the passion surrounding the tour evident generally in the build-up itself. Two nervous sets of players realising their shot at becoming overnight heroes. Two nations with bated breath praying that their chosen men deliver the desired result. Every hyperbole possible was justified when India and Pakistan took the field.
Well not quite, this time around. In fact the build-up to Pakistan’s return to Indian shores and the recommencement of bilateral ties between the arch-rivals has managed to hardly create a buzz. In days gone by-probably since the day India and Pakistan began playing against each other as separate nations-it would have been unimaginable, ludicrous even-especially considering that this is the neighbours’ first bilateral meeting in five years. You just have to turn the clock to 2004, and India’s friendship series in Pakistan to get a hint of the vibe, the passion and the all-encompassing nature of a cricketing clash between these two teams.
But Pakistan have arrived here at a time, Indian cricket is preoccupied with too many other predicaments. A humbling Test series loss at home to an un-fancied England outfit, a team and its captain under pressure and incessant scrutiny, not to forget the most high-profile retirement you could imagine. And it only seems ironic that Sachin Tendulkar called it a day from ODI cricket on the first day of the tour, further distancing attention from the tour.
Also, the undersized series, which kicks off at Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium on Tuesday with the first of the two T20s, is mainly a hasty arrangement, sandwiched between two legs of an extended England tour. Put together more as a neighbourly gesture than anything else, leaving the tour in many ways fighting for context.
If the hosts are riddled with distractions, the Pakistan team has been totally out of the international cricket radar for a while now with their last international outing having come during the World T20 in October.
No big match-ups
Historically, India-Pakistan contests have also carried an added-edge with many high-profile head-to-head battles lifting the inherent aura around them. Be it Imran Khan and Sunil Gavaskar matching wits during the 70s and 80s to Tendulkar and Shoaib Akhtar looking to pummel the other into submission.
But with both these squads consisting of a number of new names in their mix, there is no case of two behemoths trying to outshine the other this time around.
One of the main attractions in watching a Pakistan team over the years has been the presence of some eye-catching, volatile talents. But with Akhtar now retired, and Shahid Afridi on his last legs, and a lot more mellowed-down in recent times, the case of emotions and passions being carried forward to the field and tempers flaring too seem unlikely.
Indian and Pakistani players have always been considered best friends off the field and sworn enemies on it. But there is a good chance of the camaraderie seeping onto the field over the next two weeks.
Previous Pakistan outfits crossed the border with leaders possessing seminal personalities, be it an Imran, Wasim Akram or even an Inzamam-ul-Haq. This time though they will be led by two very understated, cool-headed skippers, Mohammad Hafeez for the T20s and Misbah-ul-Haq for the ODIs.
So for once, the onus might well be on the 22 players who take the field during the two T20s and the three ODIs that follow to rekindle the flame of the bitter rivalry between their teams.
“Both teams still have great talents and I think cricket will be at its best. Plus, we have a few secret packages that we will unveil over here,” said Hafeez.
For the young Indian batsmen in particular, the biggest challenge will be facing up to the wiles and wizardry of Saeed Ajmal, especially after the English spinners seemed to have the wood over them last month.
There is also of course the pace threat posed by the likes of Umar Gul, Sohail Tanvir and the colossal Mohammad Irfan. The inexperienced Indian bowling, meanwhile, have to contend with the explosive likes of Afridi, Shoaib Malik and Umar Akmal.
At the end of the day, it’s still India vs Pakistan. And the result will matter, like it always has, even if the prelude might have been bereft of its emblematic spice and hype.
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