India can place a marker as strong title contenders and reinforce their World Cup supremacy over Pakistan when the teams face-off in a desert shootout that will recall their clashes in the 1980s and 90s though with roles reversed.
Virat Kohli's team that goes into the opening Group 2 game in Dubai on Sunday is considered far superior to their opponents with each player burnished by Indian Premier League campaigns in the UAE. Ideally, that should put them way ahead of the Babar Azam-led Pakistan.
Yet, the hype and unbearable tension generated every time the sub-continent rivals meet means influences other than the usual cricketing logic take over and bring the tag of favourites with a caveat.
The match is being played in the shadow of heightened political tension between the neighbours, and this tie is being played amid terror attacks in Kashmir. Political leaders had demanded that India - BCCI took its event to the UAE because of the pandemic - should pull out off the tie.
India also will look to overcome distractions within the camp. Kohli, looking to regain his best batting form, has announced his stepping down as India's T20 skipper with the tournament. There are others, particularly all-rounder Hardik Pandya - his bowling fitness is still being assessed - who will start the campaign as a batter alone.
All this means, Pakistan should have nothing to lose. But the pressure will be equally intense on Babar Azam, the team's leading batsman whose stature will go up manifold if he can deliver victory.
India will try to focus purely on the job at hand and build form for battles ahead.
It's taken sustained performances over the past two decades for India to erase the anxiety of losing to Pakistan, of crumbling under pressure. The perceived disadvantage of performing in front of a relatively partisan Sharjah crowd is a thing of the past. Cosmopolitan Dubai now hosts IPL matches. Chetan Sharma, who was hit for that last-ball six by Javed Miandad in 1986 is now India's chairman of selectors. Besides, Pakistan will have to overturn a saga that has lasted 29 years, since their first loss in the 1991-2 World Cup that they went on to win.
In Dubai, the buzz is only building up still, a day before the match. It's the opening of Ain Dubai, the world's tallest observation wheel, which is stopping traffic here. Dubai Expo welcome notes greet tourists, not World Cup placards. Still, there are enough Indian and Pakistani expats in the UAE to fill 70% of the 25,000-capacity Dubai stadium, as limited by Covid protocols. There are still many late ticket aspirants willing to spend 3,000 AED (approx. Rs. 60,000) or more to watch the action live.
World Cup scheduling has been an open secret, and until cricket takes over and the power-hitters begin to light up the sky, it would be for this blockbuster to help build the hype around the tournament in neutral turf. In 2016, then ICC CEO Dave Richardson had revealed that the global body does look to ensure India and Pakistan remain in the same group, such is its commercial pull.
Scotland and Namibia by qualifying for the Super 12 (both are in India's Group 2) have again proved that given a chance, the minor sides can upset the pecking order in ICC events, especially T20.
FIVE YEARS ON
For various reasons, the game's current flagship event is being staged after a five-year gap. The shelf-life of most modern-day captains isn't that long. Virat Kohli has had a rare extended run. Even he had not become limited overs skipper in 2016 when he spearheaded India's victory over Pakistan at Eden Gardens.
Pakistan were then led by the mercurial Shahid Afridi. The Azam-led squad is a lot more contemporary, refined through the Pakistan Super League. PSL now attracts a fine spread of international talent, and in the process, Pakistani batters have mastered the art of improvising to meet the demands of T20 cricket, so much so that Azam calls it their "strength". Their pace arsenal is always potent with Shaheen Shah Afridi proof of that.
There is a quiet calm in the Indian camp. MS Dhoni, India's skipper in the last T20 World Cup, has been roped in as mentor. The influence of Dhoni, fresh from leading Chennai Super Kings to IPL triumph, became evident when Kohli said even before the warm-ups that the playing eleven against Pakistan has been decided. With enough game changers in the squad, settled selections and defined roles would help his team respond better.
Once during the pre-match media conference, Kohli became a touch combative when asked about his decision to announce beforehand that this event would be his last as India T20 skipper. H said: "I have explained myself very honestly and openly and if people feel that there is something more to it and not being told, I feel pretty bad for them because that's certainly not the case."
He played down the hype of facing Pakistan, whose quality he praised, and wanted to focus on India's own preparation.
"We are pretty confident in terms of execution as well. Guys have been playing a lot of T20 cricket in the IPL and everyone is playing well and that's a positive thing for the team. Now, it's purely about execution out there in the middle which everyone is confident to do. Role clarity is something that we have addressed already. We feel we are well prepared."
Kohli did not reveal his playing eleven but made it clear that Pandya would be the designated No.6, purely as a batter for now, when asked how close the all-rounder was to bowling.
"In world cricket, there are specialists who do that job (No.6). Even when the chips are down, he can play a long innings while playing that way. For us that is way more valuable than forcing him to do something that he is not ready for at the moment. He is motivated and keen to give us a couple of overs, and when that happens, obviously the team balance becomes even better."
India are looking to get in a couple of overs from their sixth bowler, one of which could be Kohli himself, having bowled two overs of his part-time seamers in the warm-up win over Australia.
India will only have to decide whether to play three seamers or an extra spinner. If the time is right to unleash their mystery find Varun Chakaravarthy, go for the quickish leg-spin of Rahul Chahar, or play them both.