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India ready with top guns in second showdown with oldest rival Pakistan

A day after turning 24, Shubman Gill cut a relaxed picture on Saturday (September 9), showing no signs of the nerves he might or might not have experienced ahead of Sunday’s clash against Pakistan. The Indian opener, becalmed in the Asia Cup Group A fixture between the sides last Saturday when he was dismissed for a 32-ball 10, looked poised and confident as he lavished praise on Pakistan’s pace bowlers as well as their captain, Babar Azam.

Of experts and trade secrets

Babar is among the top-three batsmen in the world, the runs flowing off his willow with ridiculous regularity and subliminal grace. It’s no secret that Pakistan’s players admire Virat Kohli hugely – Babar has sought out the former Indian captain more than once around their infrequent matches to discuss batting – and Gill’s remarks revealed a reciprocity and a camaraderie that has survived the test of time and political frictions.

“When a player is doing well, everyone watches him to find out why they are doing so good, what their specialty is,” Gill told a packed press conference at the R Premadasa Stadium. “The same thing goes for Babar. He is a world-class player and we all do admire him.”

Gill himself has evoked admiration for his exploits this year – he is the leading run-scorer in international cricket across formats in 2023 – but how he goes against Pakistan on Sunday will be viewed with keen interest. In his brief international career, he has made big and attractive runs against all attacks everywhere in the world. Pakistan, against whom he made his senior debut last week, will ask more probing questions than any Gill has encountered thus far, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf certain to test his skills, his character, his mettle.

The dreaded trio

This threesome accounted for all 10 Indian batsmen in Pallekele and will have their tails up, especially after having reduced India to 66 for four, among them the prized scalps of Rohit Sharma and Kohli. Whispers are gathering momentum that Rohit is somewhat of an Afridi bunny; these whispers have a life of their own and often die away as quickly as they originate, and while that won’t be on top of Rohit’s mind, he will be determined to show Afridi who the boss is.

A unique and unprecedented tweak to the playing conditions in the middle of a tournament has ensured that even if the weather interrupts Sunday’s proceedings, the teams will have a second bite at the cherry on Monday. The addition of a reserve day to just one of the Super Four matches can be termed arbitrary and unfair to the other two teams in the fray – Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – but such is the pull of the reasonably rare India-Pakistan faceoff these days that no one is complaining too vociferously. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh did make their veiled displeasure clear through their respective coaches, Chris Silverwood and Chandika Hathurusinghe, but while they might not like it, the reality is that in the Asia Cup, they will have to play second fiddle to India and Pakistan in the pecking order, though not on the field of play.

Will Rahul, Bumrah’s comeback pay off?

India have more to look forward to – and gain – from this second showdown with their oldest rivals in eight days. Pakistan have a settled look, as one would expect of a team ranked No. 1 in the ICC ODI table; India, by contrast, have been somewhat ragged and motley, their predicament stemming from the unavailability in the last year of numerous influential figures. Admittedly, India have used a staggering 49 players in ODIs in the 50 or so months since the 2019 World Cup in England, but they haven’t been able to field their strongest XI for a while now owing to injuries.

Now, with KL Rahul having linked up with the squad, Rohit has a full complement – barring Rishabh Pant – to pick from. For all his seemingly endless travails in the other two formats, Rahul as a wicketkeeper-batsman, at No. 5, in 50-over cricket is quite a proposition, and his pedigree and record should restore him to the XI at the expense of Ishan Kishan, who responded to the pressure of the situation and debuting at No. 5 with a mature, crucial 82 in the last head-to-head.

Rahul’s intensity at nets over the last three days suggests that he is in a good headspace; he moved without discomfort during wicketkeeping drills and his batting showed little signs of rust as he polished his skill. Laid low first by a thigh injury that needed surgery and then by a groin injury that prevented him from travelling with the rest of the squad for the league matches, Rahul should have little difficulty reintegrating with the team. After all, until last year, he was Rohit’s designated deputy and led in the two Tests in Bangladesh in December when the skipper was out with a split webbing.

The Karnataka man aside, attention will also be trained on new dad Jasprit Bumrah, whose wait for a first bowl in ODI cricket since July last year continues. Rain prevented India from stepping on to the park to defend their 266 in Pallekele, while Bumrah missed the subsequent Nepal fixture as he air-dashed to Mumbai for the birth of his first child. During Friday’s training session, he went all out, looking in terrific rhythm. Bumrah at the top of his game lends a dimension that’s worth plenty more than just wickets. The next week will be not so much about easing back into 50-over cricket as hitting the ground running because time is at a premium with the World Cup just over 25 days away.

Colombo was back to its normal self – hot and muggy – on Saturday with the rain sparing the cricket. The hope is that on Sunday too, all the thunder and lightning will be restricted to the playing arena, that if it does rain, it is sixes and not anything else. The expected full house may not materialise – in its collective wisdom, the Pakistan Cricket Board, the tournament host, has pegged the price of the least expensive ticket at 3,200 Sri Lankan rupees – but there should be enough electricity to put the shimmering floodlights at the Premadasa in the shade.

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