|Mahendra Singh Dhoni during a practice session, at the Eden, on Wednesday. Picture by Gautam Bose
Calcutta: The chill has suddenly deserted the city, but the thrill hasn't.
Even as a cloudy sky looked down upon the Eden with a grim face on Wednesday, one could sense the excitement that an India-Pakistan cricket encounter always promises.
Not that the Indians are on cloud nine, if one goes by their recent form… But such is the aura of the contest, coupled with the charm of one of the liveliest venues in the world, pessimism has been forced to take a backseat.
Cricket, in its current avatar of an entertainer, requires subplots to multiply its appeal to the multitude. The game is no longer played between two teams. It encompasses various issues, ranging from political to personal. It's not different this time and one’s not complaining either.
It had started off as a Revival Series — a bridge trying to bring the two estranged neighbours nearer, at least on the cricket field. Emotions ran high and expectations touched the sky. The humiliation of the preceding England series was pushed back to oblivion as there was a new playground for the demigods of Indian cricket. But when Sachin Tendulkar announced his retirement from the limited overs format, it stole the limelight from the high profile series.
Then, just when one thought that one-day cricket would be rendered tasteless without The Master, Ishant Sharma and Kamran Akmal blew the bugle in Bangalore, reminding us what an India-Pakistan series is all about.
The word ‘revival’, however, may now be replaced by ‘survival’. The tied T20 series was followed by the Chennai one-dayer, which the Indians lost by six wickets. They are trailing 0-1 in the three-match series. Nothing new, many would say, as the Indian team, post the 2011 World Cup, have been more of chasers than trend-setters.
The second match of the series, on Thursday, is thus, a must-win game for the hosts. Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni agreed to that.
For the Misbah-ul Haqs, a victory on Thursday would give them the series. Pakistan’s all-win record at the Eden against India in ODIs will also give them confidence. Returning to Pakistan after slaying India on their own turf would earn them a special place in the hearts of all the cricket fans, and probably even the non-cricket enthusiasts, in their country.
So there’s plenty to play for.
From the Indian perspective, individual goals will be important. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir would be eager to prove that they are the best opening pair in the country, Ravichandran Ashwin would like to turn the tide in his favour and captain Dhoni would like luck to call truce. One match, many targets…
One will be curious to see whether Rohit Sharma retains his place in the XI. The formless wonder’s longevity in the team must have interested the telecom industry by now. He should be the ideal brand ambassador for lifetime plans - onetime investment (read talent), lifetime opportunity.
Logically, Rohit’s place should go to Ajinkya Rahane or Ravindra Jadeja. Given the top order's failure in the previous match, one assumes that Rahane is the front-runner as he is a better batsman.
Virat Kohli, who injured himself in the last match, looked quite fit during the practice session. Dhoni said he is available, but given the busy schedule ahead, it would still be a tricky call — whether to risk him or not.
The script off-the-field is engrossing as well. Take Mohammed Irfan’s case. The towering Pakistani pacer has not only created problems for the Indian batsmen, but has also forced the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) to go on the backfoot. The CAB has decided to block around 800 seats behind and around the sight-screens at the Eden so that the Indian batsmen do not face any problem while facing the 7 feet 1 inch bowler.
But given the demand for tickets, that must have been a tough call for the association. Then there’s the gloomy sky, threatening to ruin the occasion. The forecast for Thursday says early morning showers are a possibility.
So, there’s a bit of everything in the mix. Now, it’s up to the players to make something out of that.
India (likely): Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Rohit Sharma/Ravindra Jadeja/Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Ashok Dinda.
Pakistan (likely): Mohammed Hafeez, Nasir Jamshed, Azhar Ali, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul Haq, Shoaib Malik, Kamran Akmal, Junaid Khan, Umar Gul, Saeed Ajmal, Mohammed Irfan.
Umpires: Billy Bowden and Vineet Kulkarni
TV: S. Ravi
Match Referee: Roshan Mahanama
Match starts: 12 noon