Over the years, the Indian cricket team’s struggles in the knockout stages of an ICC tournament has been a cause of concern for the team management. Ever since clinching the Champions Trophy in 2013, the Men in Blue have failed to get over the line in the knockouts, despite consistent performances in the group stages.
As another edition of the ODI World Cup beckons, this time at home, the Indian team hopes to turn the tide and break the title jinx. But before that, Rohit Sharma’s men will be put to the test in the Asia Cup, which begins on Wednesday.
With K.L. Rahul unavailable for ‘at least’ the first two fixtures of the Asian tournament, there are concerns, but the team management is optimistic about getting the house in order before the ball gets rolling in Sri Lanka. However, former Pakistan captain Mohammad Hafeez believes that India needs to find a way to handle pressure in the knockout stages.
“India is a very good team, but they are not the best yet. We have seen in the recent past that they could not handle the pressure of knockout stages in the ICC events and a few other big-ticket events. Bilaterally, they are doing well, but I think India needs to find a way to handle the pressure in the knockout stages as a team. They are very good, but they are not a complete team yet,” Hafeez told Sportstar in an exclusive interaction.
The former Pakistan all-rounder, who recently featured in the U.S. Masters T10 League for the title-winning Texas Chargers and also emerged as the Player of the Tournament, however, hopes that with the return of Jasprit Bumrah, the Indian team will be able to turn things around.
“With Bumrah coming in, let’s see what kind of impact he has on the whole tournament. We have to obviously monitor his fitness, but if Bumrah remains lethal, obviously India can turn things around. But then again, India hasn’t done well lately in the knockouts of ICC events and they need to work on that,” he stressed.
-On India-Pakistan rivalry-
Having played international cricket for nearly two decades, Hafeez understands a thing or two about the India versus Pakistan rivalry on the field, and as the two teams gear up for yet another Asia Cup meeting on Saturday, Hafeez believes that whoever can handle the mental aspects well will have the edge.
“The biggest ingredient to deal with these matches is basically your mental strength because it’s basically your mental state that helps you a lot to do well in these high-voltage India vs Pakistan games,” Hafeez said, making it clear that now with social media playing a key role, the players are always under scrutiny and that mounts up the pressure.
“With so much social media presence, it has added a lot of pressure on the players. The hype of the tournament goes sky-high and even before the tournament, the players have to deal with a lot of pressure due to social media engagements. The expectations of the people from both the countries have gone too high and none of the fans want their team to be on the losing side,” Hafeez said.
“Even though it’s a game of cricket, mental toughness plays a major role in executing your skills in an India vs Pakistan encounter. Players are getting mentally tougher, but my experience is that when you play against India, you need to control your emotions and be wary of distractions. Mental health is very important for such a key game.”
And, having featured in several high-voltage clashes in his career, Hafeez has a piece of advice for both teams. “Once you take care of your mind and handle the distractions and stop doubting yourself, you can execute your skills well. Players from both teams know that you have to handle several other things apart from just skills. Whoever controls the emotions and handles the mental condition better can turn things around. In the last few games, I have seen quite a few good performances from different players, but I must say that mental health is the key.”
-Hafeez’s World Cup semifinalists-
The ODI World Cup will be played in the sub-continent after 12 years, and Hafeez expects India and Pakistan to fare well in the tournament, even though England and Australia will pose tough challenges. “I wish all the best to India and I really want them to organise the tournament in such a manner that it becomes memorable for the Asian countries. I really want India and Pakistan to do well in this competition because these conditions suit them better than any other teams. I really wish that this World Cup remains in Asia,” Hafeez said.
“England is a good team and I like how their approach and intent has changed, but I really want India and Pakistan to do well. My four teams - according to conditions and intent - will be: India, Pakistan, England and Australia. At least three of them should make it to the semifinals,” he added.
While he admits that the World Cup opens up a window of opportunities for several youngsters, Hafeez expects youngsters Shubman Gill and Shaheen Afridi to exploit the ‘favourable conditions’.
“Pakistan’s Babar Azam and Fakhar Zaman should do well in Indian conditions. Their technique and their aggression in cricket is good. India has Shubman Gill and I want to see him bat well in the Indian conditions. He’s had tough times abroad, but playing in India, Gill - along with Virat Kohli - will make an impact,” added the seasoned campaigner, who announced his retirement from international cricket in 2022.
“In bowling, I want Shaheen to do really well with the new ball in India. Harris Sohail, too, can bring in a lot for the Pakistan team because he has the pace and confidence. There are a lot of talents around, but I want these guys to do well.”
India and Pakistan haven’t featured in a bilateral series since 2012 and only meet during ICC events and the Asia Cup due to political tension and security issues. Though chances of a bilateral series appear to be a distant dream, Hafeez hopes to see India and Pakistan engaged in a Test series, someday.
“We play ODIs and T20Is in ICC events, but I am a fan of having more India versus Pakistan bilateral Test series because that can beat all other ratings of the world. I am missing that as a fan of cricket and wish India and Pakistan play each other more often as that will boost this beautiful game,” he said.
“I feel sorry that Pakistan-India fixtures are not regular. For me, the biggest event that the fans of cricket want to watch is the India versus Pakistan game. And we’re missing the opportunity to spread this game globally because bilaterally Pakistan-India is not playing cricket. And I’m just expecting that someone will understand and see how we can work together, how we can give an opportunity to fans to have more bilateral series between the two teams,” he added.
India hasn’t travelled to Pakistan since 2007-08 due to security reasons, and its refusal to travel to the neighbouring country prompted the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to propose a ‘hybrid’ model for this edition of the Asia Cup.
While Multan and Lahore will host four games, the major part of the Asia Cup will be played in Sri Lanka, with Pallekele and Colombo as the venues.
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