World cricket's most intriguing rivalry will once again be renewed when India take on an unpredictable Pakistan with rehabilitated pacer Mohammed Amir being the focus of attention in a round-robin league encounter of the Asia Cup T20 tournament in Mirpur on 27 February.
The thrilling encounter, which has eluded the cricket fans since the two sides met in the World Cup last year, will act as a dress-rehearsal for the two teams who are also scheduled to lock horns in the opening round of the coveted ICC World T20 on 19 March at the HPCA stadium in Dharamsala.
History and form surely favours the MS Dhoni side ahead of the crucial match today. In six outings against Pakistan in T20 Internationals, India enjoy a comprehensive 5-1 win record. However, when it comes to head-to-head in the battle for the Asian crown, Pakistan and India are tied 5-5.
On one hand, while the Indian team boasts of a powerful batting lineup, their arch-rivals Pakistan are well equipped with a threatening bowling attack to negate their opponents' strength. And, as the two teams stand, it will come down to key individual battles that could decide the fate of the epic encounter.
The Indian team's recent success in limited-overs cricket can be attributed to the sizzling form of their opening batsman Rohit Sharma. The 28-year-old batsman has mastered the art of pacing his innings to the end. In the last six T20 Internationals he played, Rohit has smashed three fifties and all have come in winning causes. The Mumbai batsman was also pivotal during the opening match of the Asia Cup in Bangladesh where he anchored the Indian innings with a knock of 83 runs.
For Pakistan, Mohammad Amir will be the key to contain the batting might of Rohit. The left-arm seamer, who made a contentious comeback to international cricket, has proved his mettle in recent matches. The 23-year-old cricketer might not be at his prolific best, but he took seven wickets in as many matches during the Pakistan Super League (PSL), including a stunning hat-trick.
The wickets in Bangladesh have favoured swing and pace in the recent games and if Pakistan intend to surprise India today, Amir will have to step up his game and, more importantly, get the better of Rohit early on.
The Indian is truly blessed to have a batsman of Virat Kohli's caliber at the no. 3 slot in limited-overs cricket. Boasting of an impeccable defensive technique, the Delhi lad is an accomplished stroke player all round the wicket. His timing on the legside is especially silken and the fact that he relishes performing under pressure makes him one of the most deadly batsman in shorter formats. With the exception of a seven-run knock against Bangladesh recently, the Indian batting sensation has smashed three fifties in his last four T20 Internationals.
If Kohli boosts India's batting, Pakistan too, have a lethal weapon to showcase in Wahab Riaz. The left-arm seamer has the pace to trouble the best and his ability to swing the ball consistently has benefitted Pakistan in limited overs. With 15 wickets in nine matches, he was also the second-highest wicket-taker in the Pakistan Super league. If that's doesn't convince you of his abilities then try to recall his ferocious spell against Shane Watson during Pakistan vs Australia World Cup quarterfinal last year.
The two cricketers are undoubtedly the match-winners for their respective sides. But, it's the consistency of these two players that makes this battle furthermore important for today's match.
Ravichandran Ashwin is arguably MS Dhoni's trump card going into the epic encounter today. Whether it's opening the bowling or rescuing his side in the death overs, Ashwin can do it all. The off-spinner has been India's best bowler in the recent past and the second-highest wicket-taker in 2016 with 14 wickets in just seven matches. The onus will be on the 29-year-old spinner once again to contain the Pakistan's middle-order in today's game.
But against Pakistan, Ashwin will surely face a stern test against a seasoned compatriot like Shoaib Malik. The right-handed batsman has been a vital cog for Pakistan's middle-order in shorter formats. He was also consistent with the bat for Karachi Kings in the Pakistan Super League. And, the fact that he relishes playing against India, makes him a key player to watch out for today.
It will surely come down to the experience of these two cricketers that can swing the balance in favour of their respective teams.
This is a battle of the veterans wherein a 35-year-old opens the batting for Pakistan while another senior campaigner aged 36 starts the bowling for India. Both the players are golden oldies for their respective teams and, at their age, they are undoubtedly anomalies in the shortest version of the game.
Nehra, who has never played Pakistan in T20 format, is a senior member of the Indian team and spearheads the fairly young bowling unit. His vast experience bolstered with recent form will surely come in handy, especially in pressure situations against an opponent like Pakistan. In the last four games he played, Nehra has taken eight wickets.
On the other hand, Mohammad Hafeez has been accountable for providing solid starts to Pakistan in the recent years. The right-hander has been in international cricket for quite some time to use his vast experience in high-voltage fixtures. His ability to score runs quickly and rotate the strike makes him a crucial limited-overs player. His knock of 75 runs was also pivotal in Pakistan's one-wicket win against India during the Asia Cup in 2014.
India might have struggled and even questioned the leadership of their most-trusted captain in the past, but MS Dhoni has managed to rediscover a bit of his mojo, both with the bat and as a leader on the field. His presence in the middle-order provides the much-needed boost to the Indian batting order while his decisions on the playing field have worked wonders for his side. Given the match situation, Dhoni could be seen moving up or down the order but he is more likely to come out as a finisher in the final stage of the innings.
Since Pakistan doesn't have a renowned spinner in their side, their captain Shahid Afridi will surely have to step up in the role as a bowler. Variety is his calling and apart from his traditional leg-break, Afridi has two googlies - a conventional offie and a lethal faster one. All come with the threat of considerable late drift which can trouble the opposition batsmen. Apart from bowling, Afridi's madcap batting has also been a crowd-puller over the years. Despite being unpredictable with the bat, Afridi, on his day, is capable of cutting a sorry figure for the opposition bowlers.