Babar Azam’s men will not be short of motivation — as if you ever can be in this game — after their record-breaking defeat in the Asia Cup. Add to that the fact that the winner not only breaks their arch-rivals’ 100 percent record in the tournament but also that the top spot is up for grabs with a big enough win, and there is motivation aplenty to go around.
But motivation can only take Pakistan so far. And against an in-form India side playing in front of a partisan Ahmedabad crowd — you can bet your house that come Saturday, the Narenda Modi stadium will be filled to every last inch of its 132,000 capacity — motivation may not take them very far at all.
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For Pakistan, these are uncharted territories and even when all is going to plan, they will not have experienced what is to come next. For India, even at the worst of times, they will have years of familiarity to fall back upon. None of the players in the Pakistan side had ever played a senior game in India before this World Cup. This will be the first time any of these players will be facing India in India, and as everyone who has faced that prospect will tell you, India are a different beast in India.
Less than half of the starting eleven against Sri Lanka had ever played in a World Cup before — Babar, Imamul Haq, Hasan Ali, Shaheen Shah Afridi, and Shadab Khan have all played in one. On the other hand, India had seven players with prior World Cup experience, with Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja playing in their third World Cup and Virat Kohli playing in his fourth.
Then there is the problem of the conditions. It seems strange to say this about the side that broke the record for the highest successful chase in World Cup history in their last match, but high-scoring games have just never been Pakistan’s forte. If the conditions suit them, then their pacers can unleash hell. If not, then arguably cricket’s most potent bowling battery is blunted and reduced to damage control.
Pakistan just do not look at home chasing down big scores and on flat batting tracks always seem to leave a good few runs out there in the middle when batting first due to their over-conservative batting. As impressive as Saud Shakeel and Abdullah Shafique have been in their fledgling white-ball careers, it says a lot that two of the side’s designated attacking batsmen are red-ball specialists who still have played more Tests between them (21) than they have played ODIs (13) and T20Is (6) combined.
A lot of batting records are expected to be shattered this World Cup. There have been seven scores of 300+ in 10 matches so far, with India chasing down Afghanistan’s 272 in 35 overs and New Zealand chasing down England’s 282 in 36.2 overs in two of the five matches not to feature a score of over 300. The only team to successfully defend a score of under 300 so far is Pakistan (of course they are), when they did so against the Netherlands. These just aren’t the conditions in which you back Pakistan to win.
Then there is the simple matter of form. Jasprit Bumrah is fit and firing once again, and is looking every inch the world-beating bowler he once was. India have the option of complimenting him with both Muhammad Shami and Muhammad Siraj or one of them alongside Shardul Thakur, who is by far the worst bowler of the quartet but is the best batsman among them. Similarly, Pakistan’s destroyer-in-chief in that Asian Cup game, Kuldeep Yadav, can be paired either with just Ravindra Jadeja or with Ravichandran Ashwin alongside them. Rohit Sharma has a wide variety of options at his disposal. All this because India are a side transformed when Hardik Pandya is bowling and bowling well, providing them with the kind of balance that is the envy of pretty much every other side in the world.
Alongside that, their batting remains one of the deadliest in the world. They smashed 356-2 against Pakistan in the Asia Cup, then chased down Australia’s 199 on a tricky track despite losing their first three wickets for two runs before completely dismantling arguably the tournament’s best spin attack in Afghanistan. They also chased down Sri Lanka’s 51-run target in 6.1 overs in the Asia Cup final but let’s chalk that one down as a victory delivered by the bowlers shall we?
Pakistan, on the other hand, come into this game with their go-to top three stuttering at just the wrong time. Fakhar Zaman, Imam, and Babar have formed the backbone of Pakistan’s ODI side for some time now, but they have all had an annus horribilis to varying degrees in 2023.
Fakhar is out of the side altogether, with Shafique’s impressive century easing Pakistan’s woes a bit while putting perhaps the last nail in the coffin of Fakhar’s ODI career. Imam had finally started playing like an ODI opener should last year and had a great strike-rate of 94.74 but has reverted to his old ways and is scoring at a strike-rate of 79.16 this year.
Babar, on whom the team relies on the most, is having by far his worst year since 2018 and both his average and strike rate are at a five-year low. His strike rate is down by nearly seven runs since last year while his average is down by an alarming 40 runs. What is more worrying is that this poor run of form has come despite Pakistan playing all their 2023 matches in familiar Asian conditions.