“The biggest game in sport” I’ve been told. This is a qualifying pool game between one of the better teams and one who has a chance of making the semis. In the context of the World Cup, it will determine if there is a team that has a fighting chance of getting into the top four, or if the last 23 games (I think) will be a procession before the predicted four make it to the knockout phase. As you can probably tell, I’m not in the slightest bit excited for the game. It’s just another fixture between two countries who don’t particularly like each other, whose politicians interfere too much in sport, whose requirement to meet means they always do draw each other in ICC competitions even before round-robin formats.
They met in the Champions Trophy final back in 2017, but no-one in India talks about that. Since that day, India have marched on relentlessly, led by their ton machine captain, Virat Kohli, while MS Dhoni ascends to beyond god-like status, Jasprit Bumrah is now the greatest Indian one-day bowler ever (do they remember Roger Binny? Joke), and Rohit Sharma still can’t beat Ally Brown’s record. Pakistan have gone backwards, and are now a living breathing cliche. Any win against the top 4 will be greeted with “same old unpredictable Pakistan”. Just as it did when they beat England.
In many ways, though, today is special because of the one thing sporting governing authorities hate. If they had their way, India would be playing Pakistan home and away every year, to fill in the space between the IPL. It’s a mixture of sporting rivalry, political clashes and local pride (and pride barely does it justice). Today is special because they don’t play each other. Because less is absolutely more. That’s why there is such focus on the weather forecast. That’s why 700,000 applied for tickets at the inadequate Old Trafford (I’ll bet the authorities wished they could have played it at the other OT, or the Olympic Stadium). This is that rare thing – a local rivalry that’s played infrequently. Maybe this is why it is the biggest game in sport….today.
India are unbeaten and on 5 points, while Pakistan are currently second from bottom on 3 points and with a net run rate destroyed by their loss to West Indies. A win puts Pakistan level on points having played a game more, a loss means England move down into 4th, on 6 points, and three clear of 5th. The halfway point of the group phase will see the split we probably expected. India are clear favourites today.
Yesterday’s games provided some drama, but in the end, not a lot. Australia got a strange start, rode a massive innings from Finch to set up what could have been a monster score, but then faded badly to “just” make 334. This looked less formidable when the Sri Lankans got off to a great start, but Karunaratne clammed up as he approached a century, the rest of the team caught the hesitancy bug, and the game faded away badly. Starc took his share of wickets again, but one was left with a bit of a void. A close finish wasn’t on the cards.
In yesterday’s other game, South Africa skittled out Afghanistan, with a monumental collapse after one of the rain breaks. The man who runs 50 yards after every wicket, no matter the circumstance (and it looks plain stupid with the World Cup South Africa have had) took some more. Then South Africa decided a crawl to the target was better than improving the net run rate, so Amla had a net, DeKock actually tried to score at better than test rate, and the win was achieved in just shy of 30 overs. England took 27 balls more to chase down 212 the other day.
I had a little say on Afghanistan’s loss and what it means for expansion – nothing really, because money drives everything – but those avid proponents of the 14 or 16 team tournaments did not have a good day. It is also really disappointing to see how Afghanistan have fared. I know the circumstances need to be taken into account, as these conditions are as alien as could be for them, but the horrible fact is that the authorities will never let 2007 happen again, that 2011 and 2015 formats produced too little excitement for the ICC, and TV money drives this. They have a hook to hang it on with Afghanistan’s showing. It’s probably going to be the longest standing consequence of this tournament.
Pakistan have won the toss and have elected to bowl.
Enjoy the game, comments below.