It will be a sight to savour with Virat Kohli`s outrageous strokes on display against Haris Rauf while Rohit Sharma hits Shaheen Shah Afridi`s banana inswingers out of the park during India`s `battle royale` against Pakistan in Asia Cup 2023, which will be more than just an ODI World Cup dress rehearsal.
The two subcontinental giants will renew their fierce rivalry on Saturday, an encounter which is not just another game, it is `The Match`. Kohli`s lofted check-drive off Rauf under Melbourne skyline last year during the T20 World Cup became a part of Indian cricket fans` muscle memory while Pakistanis rejoiced when Rohit failed to negotiated a lethal tailing-in delivery from Shaheen and was caught plumb.
However, much to the dismay of fans, with steady rain predicted in the hilly Kandy region on Saturday, an anti-climax to a mouth-watering clash can`t be ruled out.
Team India, which is yet to fit-in all the jigsaw puzzles will be hoping that their `holy trinity` of skipper Rohit, peerless Kohli and his heir apparent Shubman Gill is ready to fight fire with fire against Shaheen, Rauf and the feisty Naseem Shah.
Overcast conditions and a bit of nip in the air is all that Shaheen and Naseem would need during the opening Powerplay to unsettle the Indian top three.
Especially Gill, who doesn`t have a pronounced feet movement against pacers and uses his hands more with a technique that is more about beside the line of the ball rather than behind the line.
The puzzle surrounding Indian and Pakistani middle-order assumes significance. India`s concern is accentuated primarily by the absence of KL Rahul, who will miss at least the first two Asia Cup games.
India might have decided to field wicketkeeper batsman Ishan Kishan in the middle-order against Pakistan but they are still undecided about his slot, No. 4 or No. 5 but mostly the latter position. Kishan`s inclusion will certainly give the Indian batting unit a bit of variety for him being a left-hander.
On the other hand, Pakistan does not have any injury concerns but they are one of the most undercooked ODI sides at the moment. Since the 2019 World Cup, the `Green Brigade` has played just 29 ODIs, whereas India have played 57 matches in the same period.
Pakistan have played 12 of those 29 matches this year as well. While their top three consisting captain Babar Azam (689 runs), Fakhar Zaman (593 runs) and Imam-ul-Haq (361 runs) have fired more often than not this year, there is an issue from No. 4 to No. 6.
Usama Mir, Saud Shakeel and Agha Salman have been largely inconsistent barring the odd flicker, and they looked anaemic on the days when Mohammad Rizwan, who bats at No.4, fails. Often, Pakistan required No. 7 Iftikhar Ahmed and No.8 Shadab Khan to add a bit of heft to their innings. Iftikhar was promoted against Nepal and helped himself with an ODI hundred.
While India and Pakistan are travelling on the same boat as far as their middle-order woes are concerned, the latter has a distinct advantage in the bowling department. Although India have been bolstered by the return of Jasprit Bumrah and Prasidh Krishna, the side will be eager to watch how they respond to the rigours of 50-over cricket.
As impressive as they are on paper, the Pakistan pace troika of Shaheen, Naseem and Rauf is operating at a whole different level. They already have taken 49 wickets among themselves this year with Rauf leading the chart with 17 wickets from 10 matches. If anything, it indicates a tough examination of the skills of Indian batsmen at the Pallekele stadium, where pitch offers a reasonable amount of help for the bowlers in the form of bounce and carry.
India will also have to keep a close tab on the selection in the spin department. Ravindra Jadeja`s inclusion is certain and he could be coming in at No. 7. But that will leave India with four bowlers who hardly contribute with the bat.
India might think long before picking between left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav and left-arm spinner Axar Patel. While Axar will give India the option of a bowler who can bat at No. 8, Kuldeep has better striking ability. But Pakistan have been served well by leg-spinner Shadab, who has taken 11 wickets from 8 matches in 2023, while chipping in with the bat as well.
(With PTI inputs)