After the shock exit in the last edition of the T20 World Cup, Team India begin their search for a global title as they take on Pakistan in the opening Super 12 match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Sunday. India under the new captain-coach combination of Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid have been on a roll in bilateral series in the shortest format. The Men in Blue have won eight series in a row and are ranked No.1 in the world.
However, the inability to do well in multi-team tournaments has been the Achilles heel for the Indians.
They crashed out of the Asia Cup in the Super 4 stage in the UAE recently. Add to it, the absence of pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah and ace all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja due to injuries, even the most optimistic Indian fans will feel nervous ahead of the big game.
Any World Cup game against Pakistan is big, but this is huge for the simple reason that a defeat could well end India's campaign in the Super 12 stage. India, Pakistan and South Africa are expected to fight for the two semifinalists spot from Group 2, which also features Bangladesh and the two qualifiers – Zimbabwe and the Netherlands. A loss in the opener would put enormous pressure on Rohit & Co. in the game against the Proteas in Perth on October 30. Tackling Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Marco Jansen on the bouncy wicket at the Optus Stadium in a crunch game is no easy task.
Moreover, the Indians have shown a tendency to freeze in the must-win games in the big tournaments – whether it be against New Zealand in the last T20 World Cup or against Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup last month. The Indian batters, especially opener K L Rahul and Virat Kohli, seemed to be burdened by the fear of failure.
Shaheen Afridi will be a big factor in the marquee clash. The tall left-arm pacer has regained fitness and is ready to inflict more damage on India after his exploits last year. His twin strikes – when he accounted for Rohit and Rahul inside the Powerplay – more or less settled the game in Dubai. The Indian batters have a genuine problem against the left-arm pacers as demonstrated by Afridi, England's Reece Topley or Lankan Dilshan Madushanka.
India need to be smart against Afridi. They need to preserve their wickets and be judicious in their strokeplay. It's easier said than done as Afridi has able pacers in Haris Rauf and Mohammad Hasnain for support.
Rahul will have a crucial role to play if India are to make it to the semifinals. The Karnataka batter has got the technique and shots to do well Down Under. If he can stay positive and keep his cool, it will be a big plus for his side.
Pakistan on the other hand know very well that the pressure is huge on India, especially after beating them in the last T20 World Cup and Asia Cup. Babar Azam's men have a good chance to better Pakistan's poor 1-5 record against the arch-rivals in the tournament.
Babar and his opening partner Mohammad Rizwan are integral to Pakistan's success. Wicketkeeper-batter Rizwan has been exceptional and how the Indian new-ball pair of Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar fare against the Pakistan openers will have a huge bearing on the outcome of the match.
Rohit has hinted that he's open to the idea of different playing elevens for each game. The Indian think tank will be contemplating whether to go with five specialist bowlers plus all-rounder Hardik Pandya or pick just four specialist bowlers in the opener.
Finally, there is the threat of rain. If it's a curtailed game, the toss assumes even more significance. Win the toss, put the opposition in and chase down the target has been the preferred tactic of captains across the globe in T20 cricket. One can only hope that rain stays away and the match lives up to the hype.