Pakistan v India could draw cricket’s biggest ever audience

Pakistan's captain Sarfraz Ahmed, left, with his Indian opposite number Virat Kohli, will battle to keep hold of the ICC trophy at the Oval today. Photograph:  AP
Pakistan's captain Sarfraz Ahmed, left, with his Indian opposite number Virat Kohli, will battle to keep hold of the ICC trophy at the Oval today. Photograph: AP
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When Pakistan defeated England
 in the semi-final it guaranteed an 
all-Asian final to the ICC Champions Trophy. It is not remiss to say that across the offices of the ICC and broadcasting partners fingers were crossed that India would prevail over Bangladesh in the other semi-final and make the final a sponsors’ and television dream.

It duly happened, so today at the Kia Oval in London two contrasting Asian powerhouses go head to head. They met in the T20 world cup in 2016 and nearly a sixth of the global population tuned in.

Today’s contest has the chance to be the most-watched cricket game ever. Who will win? Clearly India are favourites. They have won three of the four one-day internationals played between the countries in England and have been sumptuous in their last two matches.

But it is an intriguing match up. Pakistan are through courtesy of superb pace bowling, especially when the ball is 25 overs old and a bit roughed up. India are thankful to a top order that simply purrs along like the most beautifully engineered Rolls Royce.

Mohammad Amir missed the semi-final but is expected to play today and has been wonderful. His control, at high pace makes scoring freely off him in the middle overs exceedingly difficult, but what compounds this is at the other end Junaid Khan or Hasan Ali is delivering equally difficult deliveries. Against both Sri Lanka and England this pair squeezed the middle overs so much that thrashing was the only option open to the batsmen. Both were swift, accurate and almost a throwback to the legends of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis of the nineties in that they used both conventional and reverse swing at will to confound the batsmen. They were glorious and deserved winners.

The slow, low turner used in the semi-final benefitted them much more than England as it thwarted England’s carefree hitting policy but it still takes a lot of skill to bowl as Pakistan did. If they are to defeat India though, they will have to do similar as India’s top three are in form and exquisite batsmen. Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan open up and score freely without resorting to the bash and crash employed by the likes of Alex Hales and Jason Roy and they are followed by quite simply the best batsman in world cricket, Virat Kohli.

Of front or back foot he persuades the ball into gaps with such elegance that he really is a batsmen who stands comparison with the best in the game over the past 150 years. And you cannot tie him down with spin as he can attack with sweeps, clips, pulls and drives and has such quick feet that he can change the angle of attack so balls on middle stump get lifted into the gap over extra cover. Following him are MS Dhoni and Yuvray Singh so there is little or no respite.

Top-class bowling versus top-class batting, it could be a contest to savour. The hope is it is, as these two met in the group stages and the match was awful, India thrashing Pakistan by 124 runs.

So what happened to the tournament favourites, England and Australia. England were doing well but lacked the street smarts to change batting style on a worn wicket in Cardiff. The crash-it approach that has been so effective needed refining but they failed to do so and came up against a resurgent Pakistan. Australia on the other hand were thwarted by rain, their group match against Bangladesh abandoned with Australia utterly dominant. Better use of time – a drinks break in a rain shortened game? – and a few overs more and it could have been them playing in the latter stages.

That is the beauty of this short tournament. Every match is crucial and every team can win a one-off match. The Asian sides have enjoyed the particularly dry early summer in England but other teams have had their chances. Fail to take them and go home, seize them like Pakistan and you end up in the final. There has been an immediacy and intensity about the past fortnight that has made compelling watching. It just needs a final worthy of it.

At least it has shown 50-over cricket is alive and well, reports of its demise at the hands of T20 greatly exaggerated. The two formats seem to be dovetailing neatly now into an international calendar as both are proving very lucrative to the money men.

The challenge for the ICC now is to try to ensure Test cricket survives and starts to thrive again. A bit more love and attention to the longer format is needed now and that may mean a little less attention to the money and a bit more to the heritage of the game.