Who will seize the day?
Expectant hysteria is reaching a climax. When twenty-two men face off in the Punjab, hundreds of millions of Indians and Pakistanis around the world will turn their attention to a sport born in England but loved with a mad passion in South Asia. Does anybody doubt this is cricket's greatest rivalry? The tension of this moment is intense, and it has spawned daft predictions of India's defeat based on numerology and irrational fears about Pakistan's use of a 'kala pathar' during net sessions.
The test the Indians and Pakistanis face, however, is not simply confined to sport. It is an examination of our maturity, tolerance, and perspective. This is the World Cup semi-final, perhaps the one-day game of greatest import that these nations have contested, fuelled by years of acrimony, atrocities, and politicking. Some of us have already failed the test, but this semi-final is an opportunity to show that sport can unite and ennoble despite a bitter history.
The players themselves have set the best example, enjoying cordial relationships even though the baggage of jingoistic expectations is their constant burden. These are the same cordial relationships and deep friendships enjoyed by Indians and Pakistanis in all walks of life all around the world. Sadly, the pressure cooker environment of South Asia too easily strips us of our maturity, tolerance, and perspective.
With the semi-final throwing up a contest between the tournament's premier batting line-up and the tournament's best bowling attack, we have a mouth-watering contest to anticipate, a celebration of the highest skills in cricket. Is it too much to ask that sport will transcend our differences, that winners and vanquished will be applauded for their thrilling contributions to a tournament that has exceeded expectations? Probably so but we can still dream.
A more tangible dream will be victory for your preferred nation, and in that dreaming Indian fans have a head start, the favourites to succeed. Their team is playing on home territory, on the back of consistent form in this World Cup and for many months prior to it. They are a formidable proposition at home, especially when the high electrical charge of the crowd zaps Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar or Yuvraj Singh into ballistic form. A sense of destiny surrounds Sachin and his quest for his hundredth hundred, the stage seems ready for a grand moment in cricket's history.
Shahid Afridi's dreams will revolve around bringing down those three gladiators. Achieve that and the final will be within sight. Pakistan have the bowling resources to make it possible. Afridi, Umar Gul, and Saeed Ajmal pose a constant threat, and any assistance from Mohammad Hafeez and Abdul Razzaq is a welcome bonus.
The challenge for Pakistan's bowlers, however, will be greater than they have yet faced. India's batting riches ensure that, and the Mohali wicket is expected to play to home strengths. Up to this point, Pakistan's bowling discipline has been exemplary except for a crazy late spell against New Zealand.
That discipline will be essential to prevent the Indian batsmen from plugging into the electric grid of the home crowd and supercharging their way to a large total. Hence high discipline will require the accompaniment of cool nerves to stifle India's batsmen in the hope they might frazzle under the intense pressure of home expectations.
Pakistan's plans are simplified by only two minor selection dilemmas. The batsmen pick themselves, following the recent form of Hafeez, Kamran Akmal, and Asad Shafiq. Gul and Afridi are arguably the leading bowlers in the tournament. Razzaq's role seems unsatisfactory but is a vital one in Waqar Younis's strategy -- a worry for India will be that neither Afridi nor Razzaq has yet played one of their trademark blitzkrieg innings.
The first dilemma, then, is Saeed Ajmal or Abdul Rehman? Pakistan will need to take wickets against India and Ajmal is the spinner that will pose greatest threat. The second dilemma is thornier, Shoaib Akhtar or Wahab Riaz? The sentimental answer would be Akhtar but the variation in line that Riaz offers means that he is a more fitting complement to Pakistan's key wicket-takers.
India begin favourites but Pakistan have every chance to seize the day. The game will be won and lost by Pakistan's success in pressurising India's batsmen. No team has yet won a World Cup on home territory, and no World Cup has seen a match of such intensity. The favourites tag is a heavy burden while Pakistan can be more relaxed away from home pressures, enjoying each moment of exceeding everybody's expectations, they can only gain while India have their own World Cup to lose.
Should MS Dhoni's team overcome those extreme pressures it will be an incredible achievement, which could only be equalled by a team in exile, surrounded by calamity and led by a lightning conductor, reaching a World Cup final in a country that is its greatest rival.
Did somebody say it was only a cricket match?
Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here