Sarfraz Ahmed’s Pakistan capable of springing a surprise on June 4

Pakistan have never won the Champions Trophy before and going into the eighth edition of the eight-team tournament, the Men in Green aren’t one of the favourites for the title which is currently held by Team India.

The Champions Trophy, though, is a short tournament and you only have to be at your best for five days, to win the title. But equally, one bad day and one loss might well see you exit the tournament at the group stage. And so, the unfancied teams like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Srilanka have as much of a chance of winning or exiting the 2017 edition of the Champions Trophy as Australia, India, England, and South Africa.

Virat Kohli’s India take on their arch-rivals on June 4 at the Edgbaston in Birmingham, where Pakistan beat India by three wickets in the 2004 Champions Trophy. In the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy, India beat Pakistan by 8 wickets on Duckworth-Lewis Method. Altogether, Pakistan and India have faced each other three times in this competition and the former lead the head-to-head by 2-1.

Champions Trophy 2017: India vs Pakistan

India will undoubtedly start this match as the favourites, but they have a fair few chinks in their armoury, and their June 4 opponents can exploit them.

The battle of strengths

Pakistan’s Champions Trophy squad has four quality fast bowlers, Wahab Riaz, Junaid Khan, Hasan Ali, and Mohammad Amir. And, as has always been the case with the Men in Green, their biggest strength is the pace battery and the bowling attack in general.

India’s strength, on the flip side, is their batting line-up. But in my opinion, India’s best playing XI has quite a few batsmen who go into this eight-team tournament short on runs. Kohli himself had an ordinary IPL season and a poor Test series against Australia and Rohit Sharma accumulated just 333 runs at an average of 23.78 and will be playing first ODI since October 2016. In fact, you can basically name every one of India’s batsmen who are likely to play on June 4—Shikhar Dhawan, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni, and Kedar Jadhav—and the runs have been hard to come by for all of them.

In addition to this shortage of runs and rhythm and the subsequent lack of confidence, the pressure of playing your arch-rivals is immense. So, these are the factors that the Pakistani bowling attack can exploit.

We are only at the start of the cricket season in England and though the English pitches might not greatly help the bowlers, the likes of Wahab, Hasan and Amir have enough ammunition to strike early and get into what’s a fragile Indian middle order with two stalwarts (Yuvraj and Dhoni) who are no longer reliable, slotting in at Nos. 4 and 5.

So, Pakistan’s bowling vs India’s batting is a battle which might well decide who kicks off their Champions Trophy 2017 campaign with a win. If you ask me, I will say Amir and co. can put their team on the front-foot with a bowling performance which they are individually and as a unit capable of.

Pakistan’s batting against Indian bowling

One of the reasons why the Men in Green have not been as successful an ODI side as other one-day nations is their mercurial batting line-up. They have almost always had the tendency to capitulate as a batting unit, particularly while chasing down scores.

Team India will be mindful of this propensity of their opponents and if Kohli wins the toss, expect him to want to bowl first, not just because of this weakness but also considering the 10.30 AM start in England, with matches starting at 3.00 PM IST. If that’s the case, then the Pakistani batsmen have to put up a good show and post a total in excess of 250 at least.

Umar Akmal, who was picked in the Champions Trophy squad, has been asked to return home after he failed a fitness test. Haris Sohail and Umar Amin are being considered as the younger Akmal’s replacement. But Akmal will have walked into Pakistan’s playing XI against India and although mercurial, he is capable of playing a match-changing knock. So, in his absence, not only does the batsman who replaces Akmal, have to do a good job but the senior pros like Shoaib Malik, Mohammed Hafeez, etc. have to take more responsibility and play long innings.

Because they are poor chasers, batting first could be the preferred option if Sarfraz Ahmed wins the toss. But I’d like to see Pakistan be bold and ask the holders of the Champions Trophy to bat first, keep them to a score of around 240 and then bat maturely to chase it down. In 2004, Pakistan very nearly botched up a 201 run chase. The presence of Mohammad Yusuf, who made an unbeaten 81*, saw them home in the final over.

Potential jadedness

India take on their arch-rivals just a couple of weeks after the conclusion of the 10th edition of the IPL and weariness could well be a factor for the likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the openers and MS Dhoni, who played the entire length of IPL 2017. By being on their toes and opportunistic, Pakistan can cash in on any drop in intensity or lack of firepower from India.

Closing thoughts

In Malik and Amir, Pakistan have two players with experience of having played against India in the Champions Trophy before and won as well. And, having played one-day cricket in the lead-up to this tournament, as a unit, Sarfraz and co. must be feeling good about themselves.

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