LONDON, June 17, (RTRS): India are favourites to retain the Champions Trophy on Sunday but they would probably have preferred to face different opponents than arch-rivals Pakistan in what is sure to be a highly-charged final.
The neighbouring countries have moved on from years of political conflicts but emotions will run high as millions of supporters around the world watch the first major cricket final between the teams since the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup.
One of the most unpredictable sides in world sport, Pakistan were the lowest-ranked side going into the tournament and produced a shambolic performance in their heavy opening defeat by India.
As they have done many times before, however, Pakistan suddenly found their form with wins over top-ranked South Africa and Sri Lanka before delivering an outstanding all-round display to stun previously unbeaten hosts England in the semifinals.
India suffered a shock loss to Sri Lanka in the group stage before overwhelming Bangladesh in the semis and their captain Virat Kohli has been impressed by Pakistan’s resurgence.
“The turnaround has been magnificent,” Kohli said.
“Obviously, if you reach the finals you have to play some good cricket and credit to them, they’ve turned around things for themselves really well.
“The belief just showed on the field the way they played together as a team and regardless of who you play in the finals, it’s always going to be challenging because once you start thinking that it’s a big game, then your mindset changes.”
India, who beat Pakistan by five runs in the Twenty20 final 10 years ago, have been lifted by the outstanding batting form of Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma.
“What we are going to try to do is repeat the similar sort of cricket that we have played so far, knowing the strengths and weaknesses they have,” Kohli said.
“I don’t think we need to look too far away from what we are doing as a group, focus on our skills and our abilities and believe in ourselves on that particular day.”
Meanwhile, Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur is confident his side’s group-stage “aberration” against title-holders India will have no bearing when they face their arch-rivals again in Sunday’s Champions Trophy final at the Oval.
When the Asian giants met in their tournament opener at Edgbaston on June 4, India thrashed Pakistan by 124 runs.
Arthur, a former coach of both his native South Africa and Australia, labelled Pakistan’s performance that day as “shambolic”.
But Pakistan, the lowest-ranked side in a tournament featuring the world’s leading eight one-day international nations, bounced back to beat top-seeded South Africa and then held their nerve in a tense virtual quarter-final with Sri Lanka in Cardiff on Monday.
Two days later, again in the Welsh capital, Pakistan produced a brilliant all-round display to hammer previously unbeaten tournament hosts England by eight wickets in a lopsided semifinal.
Now, with left-arm paceman Mohammad Amir returning to the side after a back spasm ruled him out of the England match, Arthur believes there will be no repeat of their woeful pool showing against India when the latest edition of world cricket’s most high-profile contest takes place in London.
“The India game was an aberration,” Arthur told reporters at the Oval on Saturday.
“What we’ve produced after that doesn’t come as any surprise, because that’s how we trained, and that’s what we worked at.
“It was very disappointing to see that go wrong in the Indian game, but… We’ve closed the chapter on that.
“That was an aberration. We’re now moving forward.”
Amir’s return bolsters an already impressive Pakistan pace attack featuring Hasan Ali, the tournament’s leading wicket-taker.
And Arthur believes that if Pakistan can strike with the new ball, they will have the chance to test an India middle order who have hardly been required to bat during this Champions Trophy, with the likes of openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, as well as captain and star No 3 Virat Kohli piling on the runs.
“Our strength has been the fact that we’ve been able to take wickets, and we’ve been able to take wickets consistently through the middle periods,” explained Arthur.
“If we can get amongst them with the new ball, we can expose the middle order that hasn’t batted much in this competition — so that’s pretty much our aim and focus.”
Pakistan’s run to the final has once again led to many comments about their notorious “unpredictability”.
But Arthur, who took charge shortly before last year’s tour of England, always believed they could go all the way in this tournament.
“I don’t think we’ve exceeded expectations at all,” he said ahead of what will be Pakistan’s first match of the competition at the Oval, having played all their previous fixtures at either Birmingham’s Edgbaston or Cardiff.