LAHORE, March 28: As the high-voltage semi-final between traditional rivals India and Pakistan is now just a day away, the contrasting build-up of both the teams in the World Cup signal Pakistan as relatively stronger contenders to win the nerve-wracking day-night encounter in Mohali.
While the game’s pundits are considering Indian batting line-up as potent enough to enable their team to what would be a huge morale-boosting victory against their arch-rivals, they regard Pakistan’s top-class bowling as their main strength to topple the opponents.
In other words, this semi-final can be termed a battle between Indian batsmen and Pakistan bowlers.
Though there are many ifs and buts over the chances of both the sides, it is proven that despite Indian batsmen’s impressive show in earlier games of the World Cup Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s squad could not achieve victory against strong teams.
On the other hand, the Pakistan bowlers’ sterling performances led Shahid Afridi’s brigade to win even after their batsmen failed to come up to the expectations several times in the mega event.
In their group ‘B’ games, Indian batsmen, batting first, had set daunting targets against England and South Africa — two hot favourite outfits at the World Cup.
But while India, after posting a mammoth 338, could not force a win against Andrew Strauss’ England in Bangalore, and the match ended as a thrilling tie, the co-hosts, after totalling 296, could not prevent South Africa from winning the game by three wickets in Nagpur.
In both the matches, Sachin Tendulkar reached three-figure mark but the master batsman’s sterling willow work still proved to be not enough for the Indians.
On the other hand, Pakistan bowlers have delivered so far in the spectacle when it really mattered. In their group ‘A’ encounters, Pakistan bowlers did not allow Sri Lanka to chase a winnable 278 in Colombo and they also managed to restrict Ricky Ponting’s Australia to a meagre 176 all out at the same venue.
Against Canada, when the green shirts’ vulnerable batting line-up flopped miserably to be bundled out for a paltry 184, Pakistan bowlers again came to rescue their team to dismiss the easy-yet-resolute opponents for 138.
New Zealand were the only side who mauled Pakistan bowlers, as Ross Taylor cut loose to smash a whirlwind century. Taylor, who survived back-to-back catches dropped by the blundering wicket-keeper Kamran Akmal, made full use of those reprieves to change the fortunes in the last six overs of the New Zealand innings. The Kiwis’ huge 302 proved too tough for a fragile-looking Pakistan batting line-up which eventually folded for a dismal 192.
Under these circumstances, the Pakistan bowlers will have to excel once again while our batsmen have to shed the tag of ‘unpredictable’ to support their bowlers’ efforts in the potentially electrifying semi-final.
If India bat first, Pakistan bowlers will have to employ all their intelligence, skills and strength to restrict a formidable Indian batting to a gettable total. And if Pakistan bat first then the batsmen should try to at least score somewhere in the range of 300-plus to put Indian batsmen under pressure.
One believes both the occurrences are possible. The Pakistan batsmen have the potential to earn 300-plus against a nearly mediocre Indian bowling, in which paceman Zaheer Khan, who has captured 17 wickets at the average of 16.23 in this World Cup, seems the only significant performer.
All-rounder Yuvraj Singh (11 wickets, Average 24.3) and Munaf Patel (nine wickets, 30.22) are their other best bowlers.
However, if Pakistan batsmen play with confidence they are quite capable of negotiating this Indian bowling attack which certainly lacks world-class stuff.
Without a trace of doubt, several Indian batsmen are in top form with Tendulkar topping the table with 379 runs at an average of 54.14 in seven matches, scoring two centuries and one half-century. Virender Sehwag (342 runs, average 57.00), Gautam Gambhir (269, 38.42), Virat Kohli (238, 39.66) and Yuvraj (341, 113.66) are the other prominent run-getters in this World Cup.
In contrast, no Pakistan batsman has been able to perform with a high degree of consistency in this mega event, though their team have overpowered the opposition six times out of seven.
Exuberant-cum-belligerent Umar Akmal leads a moderate-looking list with not-too-impressive 211 runs at a reasonable average of 52.75.
No other batsman from Pakistan has crossed the 200-mark yet as Younis Khan (172 runs, 34.40), one of their top guns, is yet to produce his very best.
The team also demands an outstanding outing from Misbah-ul-Haq, another mainstay of a usually brittle batting line-up, as he has accumulated just 192 runs to date at 48.00.
Kamran Akmal (188, 37.60), Mohammad Hafeez (172, 28.66) and mighty hitter Abdul Razzaq (101, 33.66) besides captain Shahid Afridi (65, 10.83) are still to craft prolific knocks to compensate for their less-impressive performance with the bat so far.
Young and promising Asad Shafiq (three matches, 124 runs, 124.00), who didn’t get many chances in the showpiece event, is certainly a hope to help his team achieve a big total in Mohali.
As compared to batsmen, Pakistan bowlers have done a great job for the team.
Afridi, leading by example, has been outstanding with 21 wickets at an excellent average 10.71 to remain the event’s highest wicket-taker.
Afridi has had the able support from a lively Umar Gul (14 wickets, 14.50) while Hafeez with his economic bowling has also useful snaring seven wickets at 22.71.
However, still speed merchant Shoaib Akhtar, Abdul Razzaq, Wahab Riaz and Abdul Rehman — if they are selected for the Mohali cracker — will have to contribute with the leather. So far, Rehman has not been in good form claiming three wickets at a costly 66.33. Speedster Shoaib had three wickets to his credit at 40.66.
Surprisingly, however, off-spinner Saeed Ajmal, who has not featured in all games in this World Cup, has picked three wickets at an impressive 16.33.