India v Pakistan: Is the hype worth it?

India v Pakistan: Is the hype worth it?

By Kanishkaa Balachandran/The Hindu

The apparent stage-fright that hits Pakistan’s batsmen has reduced all recent matches between the arch-rivals to duds. Moreover, when every game is pegged as a crunch match, you end up chewing more than you bite off.  

Some years ago, a popular news channel in India ran a discussion, involving cricket experts and a general audience, on what is “cricket’s greatest rivalry?” It was basically a debate on the Ashes (involving England and Australia) and India v Pakistan. The Ashes is, of course, cricket’s oldest rivalry and can rightfully claim to be the greatest in the sport. While India v Pakistan has had its share of legendary encounters, where it loses out to the Ashes is the surfeit of draws, or “boring games” through the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Naturally, many in the audience voted for India v Pakistan because they were primarily ’90s kids, often starved of bilateral matches between the two countries because of political tensions. Therefore, ahead of every clash between the arch-rivals, often during a world tournament, there was context and anticipation. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s ineptitude in the World Cup and World Twenty20 against India has made a mockery of this so-called tag of the “clash of the arch-rivals”, making you wonder if the fuss is all worth it.

To be fair, Ashes contests followed a similar script for the better part of 20 years, with Australia running away with the urn till their spell was broken in 2005. Like England, India found ways to up their game against their neighbours and even the score after repeated beatings in one-day matches through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Where Pakistan have lost out in recent years to India is not necessarily for lack of skills or talent — it’s in the mind. If you look at recent encounters at the World Cup and World T20, Pakistan’s batsmen have often been the culprits, adopting an overcautious approach and an apparent stage-fright, with all the hype and hoopla ahead of the matches, has reduced the contests to, well, ashes.

Batting has let Pakistan down starting from the 1992 World Cup. The only occasions when it didn’t was in their two victories over India in the 2004 and 2009 Champions Trophies and the 2003 World Cup where they posted 273 (they still lost). Since the 2011 World Cup, it’s been a template of timid batting, with a fear of not losing your wicket, only for the required run-rate to rise steeply thereby handing India the match before the formalities are done.

Not to say that the Indian bowlers deserve no credit. An equally big factor is the discipline shown by the bowlers in maintaining the pressure. Taking the 2011 World Cup semifinal in Mohali for example, Pakistan were in the game in the chase before Umar Akmal’s wicket signalled the start of the end. From then on the ship sank, and Misbah-ul-Haq’s bizarre innings summed up Pakistan’s muddled approach.

In the 2012 World T20, Pakistan could only post 128, which India chased to win by eight wickets. In the 2013 Champions Trophy, they managed just 165 in 40 overs and yet another eight-wicket win for India. In the 2014 World T20, they posted 130 which India chased comfortably again to win by seven wickets. In the 2015 World Cup, Pakistan were set 301 and painstakingly put together 224 in reply — so much for the pre-match scream-fest. In the 2016 World T20, save for Mohammad Amir’s intense early spell, the chase of 119 (yawn!) was yet another cakewalk for India. Edgbaston was sold out for months ahead of Sunday’s Champions Trophy clash and what transpired was yet another dud of a performance, beginning with sloppy fielding, poor death bowling followed by a feeble batting approach that has no place limited-overs cricket today.

Since Pakistan last beat India in a world tournament, the 2009 Champions Trophy, their one-day performance hasn’t been flattering. Out of 144 one-day games, they have won 57 and lost 84, and their win-loss ratio of 0.678 is third from the bottom among the top-eight teams (excluding Zimbabwe). Only Bangladesh and West Indies sit below them.

Pakistan very nearly didn’t qualify for this Champions Trophy and they managed to topple fellow strugglers West Indies in the last minute. Even when Pakistan had seniors like Misbah and Younis Khan on board, their batting approach in one-day cricket was stuck in a time warp. The method starting cautiously, and doubling the score after 25 overs is a thing of the ‘90s.

In this era of thicker bats and changes to the fielding restrictions, 300 is like a par score. Over the last five years, Pakistan have scored 300 or more batting first on ten occasions, with a highest of 375. India on the other hand have done it 17 times, with a highest of 404. As a chasing side, Pakistan have the worst record of chasing scores of 250 and above (among the top eight teams) in the last five years, winning only five matches out of 27 with a win percentage of 18.52.

Virat Kohli in action

For the better part of the last decade, Pakistan had finishers and power-hitters like Abdul Razzaq and Azhar Mahmood who could play those roles but for various reasons, ranging from lack of form, fitness and allegations of cricket corruption, Pakistan have been unable to plug that hole. What they would give for a blemish-free Umar Akmal. With the team in transition with the twin retirements of Misbah and Younis Khan, it could take a while before they identify the right batsmen for the right roles, especially down the order.

This Pakistan batting lacks the menacing factor that the likes of Saeed Anwar, Aamer Sohail, Inzamam-ul-Haq and the blow-hot-blow-cold Shahid Afridi brought in the ‘90s. Perhaps if Pakistan were not denied the benefit of playing international games in their own country, we’d have seen a more progressive, confident bunch. India’s best chance of a competitive game against Pakistan would be in the adopted home of the UAE, but that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, because the Indian government says so.

The build-up to an India-Pakistan clash has only commercial benefits, but when the business is done and dusted, all the jingoism and chest-beating, often drilled up by the broadcasters and news channels calling it a “crunch match” seems so hollow.

So if you had something more important to attend to on Sunday when the chase began, you did the right thing, because you were never going to miss much anyway. Till the next “crunch match”.