Mirpur: Battered and bruised in the first quarter of 2014, India will aim to take fresh guard when they open their World Twenty20 campaign against traditional foes Pakistan here tomorrow in what promises to be a cracker of a contest.
While form favours Pakistan even though they were battered by South Africa in a warm-up game last evening, history would be on India's side as they have never lost to their arch-rivals on all three meetings of the previous editions of World T20.
Mohammad Hafeez and MS Dhoni. Pic/ AFP
The Pakistan national team has played more T20 Internationals than its Indian counterparts, who last played an official T20 International against Australia in October last year. There will be some great inner battle within the main contest. Shahid Afridi's pyrotechnics against Ravichandran Ashwin's variations, Umar Gul's pace against Virat Kohli's bravado, Saeed Ajmal's guile against Mahendra Singh Dhoni's flair.
But then, cricket is a fickle game and India have not had a great run this year so far. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's side has won only two official international matches this year having beaten Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the Asia Cup last month. They have lost to all major teams like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Even they lost to Sri Lanka in the first warm-up game before beating England convincingly by 20 runs in the final warm-up tie to somewhat redeem themselves.
While a victory acts as a morale booster after having inculcated the habit of losing, it would be a completely different ball-game when the 'Men In Blue' take the field against Mohammed Hafeez's men. It is impossible to think that Afridi's last-over exploits wouldn't play on the Indian cricketers' minds ahead of the game although the format is completely different.
There would be immense pressure on both sides and one can expect a full house at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium as people are going crazy for the tickets of the match. For Dhoni, there are a number of issues that he needs to fret upon although yesterday's England game was an indication as to what kind of line-up he is planning to field tomorrow.
There are still some concerns with both batting and bowling. Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan's performance in shorter versions hasn't been good enough but the skipper is not known to tinker too much with his side. Also the fact that Ajinkya Rahane, who can be an option as an opener having done the job for Rajasthan Royals in the IPL, is also not inspiring confidence of the highest order.
While critics have panned Dhoni for not being flexible with his team selection, he did try something 'Out of the Box' during the last edition in Sri Lanka where Irfan Pathan came in as an opener. His run-a-ball 31 was one of the primary reasons that India lost to Australia and were subsequently knocked out of the tournament. Dhoni has never really experimented big time after that.
A good start is always crucial as it helps to seize the initiative early on in the match. Both Rohit and Dhawan would be aware that a couple of defeats could mean end of the road for India in this edition. The relief for the skipper would be his mainstay Virat Kohli's form. The team's No 1 batsman looked in great touch against England as he smashed an unbeaten 73 off only 47 balls.
Dhoni's trusted lieutenant Suresh Raina is also showing signs of getting back his touch which had deserted him for the better part of the last season. A 30-odd against Sri Lanka and a 31-ball-54 against England in two practice games would certain do his confidence a world of good. Yuvraj Singh's scratchy form continued as he looked good against the Sri Lankan spinners during the first warm-up game while he played a poor shot in the next game.
However, with four man-of-the-match awards in India's last five official T20 Internationals, Yuvraj is a force to reckon with in this format as he can take the game at any point of time. Dhoni himself is coming back from injury but he looked in good touch during his 14-ball-21 against England.
The skipper's form will be crucial to India's future in the tournament. The bowling is a worrying factor for the Indian team. Ravichandran Ashwin's form in the run-up to the tournament has been good with economical spells against both Sri Lanka and England.
Ravindra Jadeja also had a decent outing with the ball against England. His terrific fielding and improved batting at No 8 makes him an automatic choice. But Amit Mishra hasn't done too well in the practice games and with Yuvraj, Raina, Rohit in the team, there is a doubt whether a third specialist spinner would fit into the scheme of things. But it will be a choice between Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Varun Aaron as Mohammed Shami is a certainty in the playing XI unless he has a niggle.
Bhuvneshwar's pace has been like cannon fodder for the batsmen and has been easy pickings for batsmen of all teams. Aaron's pace is impressive but he has very little variations which can be a worry for captain during the death overs. Pakistan were all-out for 71 in their last warm-up game against South Africa but that had more to do with trying to test the batsmen by changing the order.
While Ahmed Shehzad, skipper Hafeez, and the Akmal brothers -- Kamran and Umar -- will be itching to have a go at India, the two fear factors for Dhoni's men will be none other than Afridi and Ajmal.
Ajmal's four overs with the kind of variations he possesses can create a lot of trouble for Indian batsmen. Afridi on the other hand can change the complexion of the game with both bat and ball.
In Umar Gul and Sohail Tanveer, they have a more than capable right-left bowling combination, who are never easy to get away. In all, brace up for what is going to be a riveting Friday blockbuster.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain), Varun Aaron, Stuart Binny, Shikhar Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja, Virat Kohli, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Amit Mishra, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravichandran Ashwin, Suresh Raina, Mohammad Shami, Mohit Sharma, Rohit Sharma, Yuvraj Singh.
Pakistan:Mohammad Hafeez (captain), Ahmed Shehzad, Bilawal Bhatti, Junaid Khan, Kamran Akmal, Saeed Ajmal, Shahid Afridi, Sharjeel Khan, Shoaib Malik, Sohaib Maqsood, Sohail Tanvir, Mohammad Talha, Umar Akmal, Umar Gul, Zulfiqar Babar.
Match starts at 7 pm (IST).