The most hyped game of the World Cup turned out to the most predictable of the World Cup. On paper and on the grass, the chasm in quality between this India squad and this Pakistan squad was there for all to see. And yet, when this game comes around, all things vanish and only this game exists.
India have the finest opening batsman in the world, the finest batsman in the world, the finest pace bowler in the world, the finest left-arm wrist-spinner in the world, a veteran wicket-keeping batsman who probably has the finest mind in the game and a decent leggie, too. How does the current Pakistani squad come up against that?
They have a promising top order, but incomparable to the Indian top order. Even their once storied pace attack has fallen behind India's. And still, when it comes to India versus Pakistan, people expect weird things to happen.
But on Sunday, nothing out of the ordinary occurred. India won comprehensively, bettering its neighbour in all departments. A terrifying century from Rohit Sharma led the way, before captain Virat Kohli guided his team to 336, a total that eventually fell about 15-20 runs short of what India looked to be on course for.
With the ball, India showed off strength in depth, as Vijay Shankar, who came in for the injured Shikhar Dhawan, and Hardik Pandya took two wickets apiece. Shankar had to fill in Bhuvneshwar Kumar's quota as well. Kumar left the field in the middle of his third over with a hamstring niggle. The all-rounder, in his World Cup debut, justified the faith shown in him with a wicket on his first ball.
The match hunkered down thrice due to the rain and was eventually shortened to a 40-over affair. When Pakistan came out to bat after the last rain stoppage, the target was revised to 302 and they needed 136 off the remaining five overs. An 89-run win (D/L method) puts India in the third spot on the table behind Australia and New Zealand and on course for a semi-final berth.
Yet another loss for Pakistan, however, leaves them languishing at last but one, with only Afghanistan separating them from rock bottom. After three losses and a washed out result from five games, Pakistan might need to win all their remaining games to have shot at the semis.
Here are the talking points from the game:
Here is an indisputable statement: On current form, Rohit Sharma is the best batsman in the world. His captain, the other guy who usually claims that mantle, would also agree. There is no other batsman who exudes such devastating beauty. Sharma can at once be extremely violent and incredibly caressing. He is like a mother to deliveries — short, back of length, length, full, all kinds. Even in his anger, in his expression of justified admonition, he is never not loving.
Pakistan got a taste of that on Sunday as Sharma clobbered the ball around with deliberate care. Every stroke an expression, every decision taken with intent, and with a dollop of arrogance. When he pulls your well-aimed bouncer for six as if he was swatting away an annoying fly on a summer day, you are bound to lose heart and hope, as Hasan Ali did. People keep saying Sharma makes batting look so easy. Who are these people? What are they watching? Sharma makes batting look incredibly difficult. He makes it look like only he can pull off what he just pulled off. Look at his scorecard: 140 runs off 113 balls, 14 fours, 3 sixes. What about it makes it look easy?
With two centuries to his name this World Cup, Sharma now has scored 319 runs from 3 games at a jaw-dropping average of 159.50. At this point there is little doubt he will finish as this World Cup's top scorer, and that doesn't even matter. That's mechanical. What people will remember his not his runs, because there will be so many of them, but how he got them.
India's new opening combination clicks
There were justified concerns about the opening combination following Shikhar Dhawan's injury during the game against Australia. A broken thumb ruled him out for three weeks and KL Rahul, who had been making cameo appearances in the middle order till now, was pushed up to his natural role. He slotted right in.
Rahul's composed fifty and the 136-run opening partnership with Sharma would have allayed some fears about Dhawan's unavailability. He looked at home while opening the batting and carefully saw off Mohammad Amir's tight first spell. He gave himself time to settle in and played his natural strokes once he got his eye in. There were a few initial instances while running where it looked like Sharma and Rahul had a communication breakdown; Sharma was spared once when Pakistan missed a clear run-out chance early on. But the two looked more comfortable as time passed.
However, Rahul's promotion to opening slot can create a few problems in the middle order, where he had done his bit till now. It now puts the onus on Vijay Shankar to justify his selection.
Kuldeep Yadav back to his best
Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal are a formidable spin duo, probably the best this World Cup. Chahal had already showed his worth with a four-wicket haul in the opening game against South Africa, followed by two crucial wickets against Australia. Yadav, a left-arm wrist-spinner, had not yet hit his stride this World Cup.
His performance against Pakistan, however, showed he is back to being his usual self. He got rid of both Babar Azam and Fakhar Zaman; the two had put up a 104-run stand in the chase. His ball to bowl out Azam was one of finest deliveries this World Cup. The ball completely deceived the Pakistani batsman, who was expecting a straighter one and blocked accordingly. The ball, however, spun back in after dipping quickly and snuck in through the gap between the bat and the pad and took out Azam's stumps. Just the next over, he got Zaman too. Zaman was sweeping against the turn and top edged it to short fine-leg.
Kuldeep's display shows all members in this Indian XI are finding their groove one after the other. This bears good news for India who would want every man on the team to be firing by the time semi-finals come around.
Pakistan's toss decision
Even Pakistan PM and former World Cup winning captain Imran Khan dropped in his two cents before the game: Bat first if you win the toss, he advised Sarfaraz Ahmed. Sarfaraz ignored the advice. He looked at the overcast sky, took in account the fact that it had been raining for the past few days in Manchester and chose to bowl first. That was a bad decision in hindsight.
The pitch did not offer much to Pakistani seamers as Sharma and Rahul saw them off with relative ease. Even Amir who was the pick of the lot and gave away few runs, did not look like he was likely to take a wicket in his initial spell. Only later he came back and took three wickets toward the end of India's innings.
As Sharma, Rahul and later Kohli showed, the pitch was good for batters. And it didn't help that Pakistani pacers could not maintain consistent lines and lengths. Ali kept bowling short and short of length balls to Sharma. That is not the strategy that will work against the Indian opener.
Pakistan's team selection
Much has been talked about Pakistan's team selection this World Cup. Even the inclusion of some players like Wahab Riaz and Shoaib Malik in the World Cup squad was suspect. But on the day, Paksitani missed the mark completely with their XI.
Firstly, Sarfaraz went with two spinners, Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim, against India, who are probably the best equipped to tackle spin bowling. Khan and Wasim failed to worry the Indian batters. Their numbers speak for themselves. Khan: 9 overs, 0/61. Wasim: 10 overs, 0/49.
Secondly, if you're going up against one of the finest batting sides in the world, you would want to shore up your strength with the willow as well. Why not put in Haris Sohail who has impressed with the bat in the past year? Why go with Shoaib Malik, again, who has failed to leave any impact this World Cup? Malik, whose batting average in Britain is an abysmal 13.07. Malik, who was out on duck against Australia and then went on to repeat the feat against India.
The gulf in quality between the Indian side and the Pakistani side is evident. But that doesn't mean this Pakistani team cannot be competitive. They must, however, put their house in order before coming out to play on the field. It is, frankly, alarming that they haven't yet pinned down their best XI five games into the World Cup. It represents an embarrassment and failure on part of the captain and team management.