For a second successive Sunday, the Dubai International Cricket Stadium wasn’t a venue for the faint-hearted. If it was India who 'lorded' the clash of the Asian giants last week, then this time around, it was the turn of Pakistan to pull the fat out of the fire by a similar margin, five wickets.
Traditionally, India-Pakistan clashes have failed as contests to live up to the hype and expectations. One of the sides, largely Pakistan on the continental and global stage, has caved in rather meekly. India’s ability to hold their nerve in pressure situations has helped them stack up a 12-1 record across World Cups of the 50 and 20-over formats; they also have seven Asia Cup titles to Pakistan’s two.
A dramatic change to the script has seen two last-over finishes in this 20-over edition of the Asia Cup, a stirring final preparatory push towards the World Cup in Australia starting next month. Pulsating contests, not necessarily of the highest quality but precisely why they have been gripping spectacles, have had two packed houses on the edge of their seats.
India’s victory on last Sunday was fashioned by the all-round brilliance of Hardik Pandya, who followed up a three-wicket burst with a match-winning unbeaten 33.
A week later, it was the turn of Mohammad Nawaz to return the compliment. With India’s top order threatening to run away with the game, the left-arm spinner was parsimony personified on his way to tidy figures of one for 25 from his four overs. India, it appeared, were prepared for his bowling but taken unawares by his smashing pyrotechnics with the bat, because they seemed to have no answers once the left-hander, thrust up to No. 4 to keep a left-right combination going, lay into the bowling with gusto.
Nawaz’s Telling Statement
His bruising 20-ball 42 was pivotal to Pakistan’s success. Virat Kohli, who lit up the evening sky with a luminous 60, acknowledged that Nawaz’s cameo, which lasted as long as it did, was what was decisive in the final analysis though even after he had hauled his side to the doorstep of victory, the match was well within India’s grasp.
Indeed, had it not been for Arshdeep Singh’s inexplicable drop at short third-man to reprieve Asif Ali, on nought, in the 18th over, we might yet have had a different tale to tell. Asif expressed his thanksgiving with an 8-ball 16, the final twist in an undulating game of ebbs and flows as the pendulum swung furiously one way, then the other.
Dubai has become something of a chasing venue in recent times. The captain winning the toss has opted to put the opposition in the last 10 times, and Babar Azam followed suit when he called right. From the very first over, when Rohit Sharma latched on to Naseem Shah, it was apparent that this was an excellent batting strip and that a total in the region was pretty much par for the course.
The top three of Rohit, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli had attracted plenty of attention on the eve of the match, with the big point of interest being whether their approach would mirror the new template of fearlessness advocated by the captain and head coach Rahul Dravid.
Before the Asia Cup, this triumvirate hadn’t played a T20 International together in 2022, and the rust was evident in the two previous games. On this night, it was as if a switch had been turned on. If Rohit was electric, Rahul was mesmeric. They dictated terms to Naseem, Mohammad Hasnain and Haris Rauf, bringing up India’s 50 in just the fifth over, but when they fell within seven deliveries of each other, it was pretty much up to Kohli to set stall.
Kohli has publicly expressed his desire to follow team blueprint and take on the bowling from the get-go, but he was forced to reset his aggression once the middle order of Suryakumar Yadav, Rishabh Pant and Pandya fell without any significant contribution.
Through their spinners Nawaz and leggie Shadab Khan, Pakistan controlled the middle overs admirably, stymying India’s progress through intelligent outcricket and exceptional fielding. With Deepak Hooda as the last specialist batsman, Kohli reined in his attacking instincts and ensured his bowlers weren’t left high and dry. A total of 181 for seven was well below what looked on the cards, but definitely not trifling.
While India managed to evict Babar cheaply for the second time in two games, they still haven’t figured out a way to stop Mohammad Rizwan. The spunky wicketkeeper-batsman, who later in the night went for an MRI on an injured knee, had previous scores of 79 not-out and 43 against India in T20Is, and he breezed to 71 on this night, though during his 72-run third-wicket alliance with Nawaz, he was happy to play second fiddle.
Nawaz isn’t renowned internationally as a power-hitter, but it’s a role he dons in domestic cricket with some aplomb. India was provided a timely reminder of his smash-grab skills as the ball sailed to all corners of the park in a furious passage of play that reduced Rohit’s men to helplessness.
Perhaps that’s one area the brains trust will focus on going forward. The temptation to apportion blame on Arshdeep might be tempting, and while the game might have turned in that one second of madness, it will be unfair to haul up the young man alone when the more experienced Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Yuzvendra Chahal were taken for plenty at crucial stages of the chase.
In what’s largely touted as a three-match Indo-Pak series being played alongside but within the Asia Cup, the score reads 1-1 with one to play, provided both protagonists make it to next Sunday’s title round. Pakistan have taken a giant stride towards that end. India have games on Tuesday and Thursday against Sri Lanka and Afghanistan respectively, matches they must win to keep their September 11 date with their favourite opponents.
(R Kaushik is a Bengaluru-based freelance cricket writer with more than three decades of experience and 100 Test matches under his belt. He is the co-author of VVS Laxman's autobiography, 281 and Beyond, as well as GR Vishwanath's autobiography, Wrist Assured.)