As the hustle and bustle of the media shuttling from the media box to the press conference room, chasing team buses and sharing pleasant banalities with the who’s who of cricket abates, the players head to the ground for practice ahead of a blockbuster Asia Cup match here between India and Pakistan.
With chants from a monastery nearby permeating the air at dusk, the Indian players seem to be in a meditative trance as they gear up for the clash. A near pin-drop silence is music to the ears as you can hear the unadulterated sound of the ball pinging off the middle of Virat Kohli’s blade as he steps out to deposit a spinner down the ground, sending the media scurrying for safety.
The star batter, on whose shoulder a lot is said to rest, is extensively facing Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav in a quest to banish the demons of spin-bowling that have troubled him of late. But it is a length delivery from Mohammed Siraj that rises unexpectedly and thuds into his shoulder and ruffles him up. Kohli gives a thumbs up and leaves soon after.
Shreyas Iyer, who takes turns with Kohli in taking on the bowlers, looks a little ginger. Touted as India’s antidote for quality spin-bowling in the middle-order, Iyer is coming off a back surgery and isn’t consistently middling the ball. He gets an inside edge off a couple of swipes, is beaten trying to drive Siraj and by the moving ball. He pokes a little jarringly at length deliveries outside off but finds his release through an uncharacteristic scoop shot off spin.
A heartening Mumbai Indians reunion is underway as Jasprit Bumrah, set to play in his first ODI in more than a year, sends Rohit Sharma’s back leg flailing with a nuclear-tipped yorker as the India captain scampers to dig it out. The skipper wouldn’t mind that at all! He had, after all, jokingly complained about India not having the services of Shaheen Afridi, Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf in the nets to prepare for Pakistan’s pace assault.
Ishan Kishan, set to fill in for KL Rahul in the middle-order, looks at ease against both spin and pace, probably still riding the crest of a stellar ODI series in the Caribbean. He knows his spot is under intense scrutiny and has a point to prove.
A couple of Sri Lankan fans have come from Colombo to Pallekele exclusively for Saturday’s box office affair. They are dyed in the wool Suryakumar Yadav fans, so much so that they look up at the ‘SKY’ while taking his name.
But Mr. 360-degree is rolling his arm over during practice, making up for the lack of a leg-spinner in the squad. He has Tilak Varma for company, his part-time skillset the only adaption of off-spin the Indians can afford.
On the other hand, true to his primary skillset, height and pace, Prasidh Krishna is consistently hitting the short-of-a-good length area and Hardik Pandya is happy to shoulder arms. But he has had enough soon, and he deftly ramps one over a non-existent third-man.
On the other side of the main strip, Pakistan has set up camp. Kohli and Rauf, the key characters of an enduring saga during the T20 World Cup Down Under, share a warm moment.
As captain Babar Azam had said, “There is mutual respect.”
But the clocks have been reset and the covers envelope the ground as the quaint town of Pallekele waits with bated breath, hoping the rain gods do not deprive it of the spectacle of an unrivalled rivalry.
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