The Emirates EK 571 Boeing makes a smooth touchdown at the Dubai International Airport. WhatsApp springs to life. Immigration’s done and a local SIM card is taken. As the correspondent passes by the smoking area, a group of youngsters are busy discussing cricket.
“Aap India se ho (are you from India?)?” the leader of pack, who identifies himself as Burhan, asks. They are a group of five from Karachi who landed in Dubai on Thursday. The India-Pakistan match in the Asia Cup on September 19 is their pilgrimage. They are confident about a rematch between the two Asian giants nine days later, in the final on September 28. But tickets for the title showdown are at a premium, and it’s already a burning concern.
“Yeh tournament mein toh sirf India, Pakistan hi hai, lekin hamare pas final ka ticket nahin hai (this tournament is all about India and Pakistan but we don’t have the tickets for the final),” the young men asserts, giving a bloody nose to the game’s glorious uncertainties. Burhan and company would be pleased to know that the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) has decided to release extra tickets for the India-Pakistan fixture on September 19. Extra tickets could be offered for the final also, if the two sides get there. The Dubai International Cricket Stadium can accommodate 25,000 fans and needless to say, it would be a full house for the most anticipated match-up.
Popularity wise, India versus Pakistan is the biggest showdown in cricket, bigger than the Ashes. The present void with regard to the bilateral series between the two countries adds an extra dimension to the fervent fandom, whenever the arch-rivals meet in big tournaments. Rare as they come, they are playing again after a gap of 15 months. Last time, when the two sides had a face-off in the ICC Champions Trophy final last year, Pakistan had rolled over India, riding on Fakhar Zaman’s belligerent 106-ball 114 and Mohammad Amir’s fast bowling masterclass. Zaman had a reprieve early in his innings, because Jasprit Bumrah had overstepped. And such was the overflow of raw emotions that even the Jaipur Traffic Police came to use Bumrah’s no-ball image as a campaign for road safety. It bordered on the disrespectful, but the India-Pakistan contests at times put logic on the back-burner.
Incidentally, the Champions Trophy final turned out to be Anil Kumble’s final game in charge as the Indian team’s head coach. He had to leave in acrimonious circumstances. The defeat also saw Ravi Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja, who had collectively given away 137 runs without a wicket in 18 overs in the final, being phased out of white-ball cricket. Pakistan’s victory in the Champions Trophy final, however, had been an aberration. India, in fact, enjoy a clear supremacy in this fight. To put things in perspective, Virat Kohli’s men had thumped Pakistan in the group league match in the Champions Trophy. Be it the ICC events, or the last edition of the Asia Cup, India have had the upper hand in recent fixtures. But maybe, Pakistan are better prepared this term. They have already hit the nets in Dubai, while India are smarting over a Test series loss in England. A sizeable chunk of the Test side would feature in the Asia Cup. The likes of Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Dinesh Karthik, Hardik Pandya, Shardul Thakur and Bumrah will face the challenge of making an instant switch from red-ball to white-ball cricket, in completely different conditions. Also, without Kohli, the defending champions would be bereft of their best batsman, though they will be bolstered by the return of Rohit Sharma, the stand-in skipper.
Pakistan are seemingly taking the opportunity to play mind games. “If we can win the Champions Trophy, we can win the Asia Cup as well,” young Imam-ul-Haq said after the team’s practice session on Thursday.
All-rounder Faheem Ashraf spoke about how Pakistan’s preparation for the Asia Cup started with a boot camp in Abbottabad followed by a week-long training camp in Lahore before coming to Dubai. The 24-year-old, who took a five-for in Zimbabwe in July, was asked about India being “down on confidence” and Kohli’s absence. The youngster, though, didn’t take the bait. “Even without Kohli, India are a world-class side. We can never take them lightly.” But obviously, the fixture will be poorer without him.
Asia Cup fixtures-
15 Sep: BAN vs SL (Dubai)
16 Sep: PAK vs HK (Dubai)
17 Sep: SL vs AFG (Abu Dhabi)
18 Sep: IND vs HK (Dubai)
19 Sep: IND vs PAK (Dubai)
20 Sep: BAN vs AFG (Abu Dhabi)
21 Sep: Group A winner vs Group B runner-up (Dubai)
21 Sep: Group B winner vs Group A runner-up (Abu Dhabi)
23 Sep: Group A winner vs Group A runner-up (Dubai)
23 Sep: Group B winner vs Group B runner-up (Abu Dhabi)
25 Sep: Group A winner vs Group B winner (Dubai)
26 Sep: Group A runner-up vs Group B runner-up (Abu Dhabi)
28 Sep: Final (Dubai)
Matches will begin at 1700 hrs IST.
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