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When India and Pakistan take the field in an ODI World Cup, it becomes so much more than just another cricket match. One mentions ODI specifically because the feeling is not similar in the T20 arena. The time frame for intense drama to play out on the field is lot smaller and perhaps the 2007 T20 World Cup final at Johannesburg is the only time the stakes were higher than just a silver-plated trophy. Add to it the fact that Pakistan have never beaten India in this fifty-over tournament and you get the idea.
For all Pakistani fans who would boil up reading that last line, here is something soothing for them. India have never beaten Pakistan in an ODI at Mohali. That balances the equation somewhat and maybe brings down the temperature a bit, if at all something similar can be associated with a match of this proportion. So the equation is clear now – two arch-rivals going head to head in a World Cup semi-final, with pride and passion at stake, as also the champions tag which will be a step closer. Then there is the political angle that has been played out in the context of this game and it makes you wonder if this relationship is on the road to mend again.
Political uncertainty is not the issue here. It is the cricket that will be played in the centre of it all and the pressure has been consistently building up ever since India beat Australia at Ahmedabad. The chance of meeting was written down as soon as the quarterfinals were listed just that Pakistan had to beat West Indies as well. And the two teams did what was required of them in a manner that is completely their own. India won after seemingly undergoing a minor wobble. They experienced one such in the tight game against South Africa as well, but they have stepped it up a notch in the knock-outs to not lose from a fifty-fifty position. Pakistan meanwhile always leave their fans wondering if the good or the bad side will turn up. At Mirpur, Shahid Afridi’s team played like champions and allayed all those fears.
The difference between the two herein is that India have attained a consistency in the recent past while Pakistan have continued to mirror the mayhem that they are always known for. This tournament has been a pleasant difference yes, but that surety is lacking still. Against Australia and Sri Lanka they were a strong iron clad unit. Their batting was working wonders, their bowling had the look of the best attack in the world and the fielders – Kamran Akmal included – were taking all the catches. Against New Zealand that was not the case. One doesn’t mention the Windies game here because their intense domination then was an aberration.
It is not to say that they cannot control the game on their own or cannot overrun India. Of course they can, any team can on its given day. But there is a marked contrast between how West Indies play their cricket from the rest of the world. In any of the other matches, won or lost, Pakistan did not have to face the lethargy you would expect from cricketers of the Caribbean. It is something they shouldn’t expect from India at Mohali either. Having said that, the talent that resides in this side is perhaps more vast than any other country bar their arch rivals! Not many times would you hear that one on one, this is a team that compares or may be on occasion, exceeds even the Indians in that context.
It makes you wonder what could be their potent weapon against India then. Without undue debate, it has to be their bowling attack. Even if Shoaib Akhtar doesn’t play this game, they have enough firepower in Umar Gul, Shahid Afridi, Mohammad Hafeez and the rest to do the damage against the mighty Indian batting line-up. Akhtar not playing, or as the talk is, will keep the opposition guessing. He may be old but as we had seen against Sri Lanka, he may not be able to change the game alone but can be a huge factor therein. There is something about thirty-plus fast bowlers in this tournament that has rejuvenated their art. Brett Lee was one of the best things about Australia and Akhtar could go out on a high note himself.
India need to be concerned only because the runs for them have come from three players primarily. Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag have been in top form but Yuvraj Singh has been a step above them. Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli have looked good in parts but with two matches remaining, they have to come to the party. MS Dhoni is struggling with the bat and an intense game against arch rivals isn’t the best place to search for runs. Even so, if he can get a sedate forty, it would be something. The only assurance in comparison comes from the fact that Suresh Raina will duly keep his place in the side after a superb cameo in the last match. Their bowling is however a different prospect altogether.
Zaheer Khan has been the stand-out fast bowler in the tournament and perhaps is the most important member of the team at the moment. Without him where will the wickets come from? Perhaps some will come from Yuvraj who is playing at the peak of his prowess, but Harbhajan Singh’s low wicket haul is beginning to trouble everyone. The toss-up could be between Ashish Nehra and Munaf Patel, but how about bringing back Sreesanth just to get on the opposition’s nerves? It is imperative to mention a bit about the Pakistani batting as well. Akmal and Hafeez at the top will be nervy and much will depend on their performances in the field. But the onus will be on Younis Khan, Misbah ul Haq and Umar Akmal to present a sizeable target or chase down one of their own.
Primarily this is not a contest between the Pakistan batting and Indian bowling. They have been the respective weak links for both sides. If either happens to have a bad day, the other team will win without breaking a sweat. For the match to go down to the wire and live up to its hype, the Indian batting has to take on the might of the Pakistan bowling, and this will be the battle for victory. Having said that though, a match between these two teams is never as simple a matter as a bat and a ball!
(Chetan Narula is a sportswriter based in New Delhi, India. His Twitter feed is here.)