ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / News
India v Pakistan, World Cup 2011, 2nd semi-final, Mohali
Playing the pressure game
Nagraj Gollapudi in Mohali
March 29, 2011
MS Dhoni and Shahid Afridi are men of instinct, who refuse to bide by convention. Both stand out for their daring attitudes but are defensive leaders. On Wednesday it is they, and not their Prime Ministers, who will be the most important men in Mohali. Their decisions will influence a match that has gained hysterical proportions.
So on the eve of the semi-final, described by some propaganda-driven television channels as a mahayudh (great war), Dhoni and Afridi were cautious, concealing their nerves behind smiles and flashes of humour.
Afridi was on time for his interaction with the media. Dhoni had arrived late, not an uncommon occurrence in the World Cup, and something the Indian management has never been able to explain. So even as Dhoni was wrapping up, Afridi was already in the room exchanging pleasantries with the Pakistan media.
Afridi is a restless man, always on the lookout for something - mostly mischief. Even before Dhoni had stood up, Afridi was next to him, smiling but looking his opposite number in the eye. He shook hands and then put his arm over Dhoni's shoulder. The cameramen went berserk. A moment later Afridi sat down, hunched forward, in control and ready to take on the world. For the next 15 minutes Afridi answered the media's questions with the wit of a stand-up comedian. His responses were impromptu, abrupt, in short bursts and left everyone chuckling.
Asked if Pakistan's fast bowlers would employ the same strategy of bowling short as did the Australians in the quarterfinals, Afridi shot back: "And maar khaye unon ne (they got beaten)." Why were Pakistan not training today? "Why, you don't like it?" Afridi responded. Someone asked whether Pakistan, a team with a young average age, could handle the pressure of a big game in front of a partisan crowd. Afridi completely misunderstood the question initially, and it was asked again. His response was off target. "Age is less? You are saying that because of me? Average age bolo na, yaar (say you meant the average age). Average actually increasing is not such a big thing. It can increase any time. This is a match to increase averages."
Then Afridi put on his serious hat, admitting a positive result would have tremendous significance for Pakistan cricket, which had plunged into crisis after three players were indicted in a spot-fixing scandal during the England tour last year. "It is very important," Afridi said. "This World Cup matters a lot for us because we are trying to bring cricket back home."
Afridi said the most important thing his players needed to do was enjoy the game. He even thought Pakistan held an advantage. "The main thing is if you know how to handle the pressure, you don't need to panic in it.
"We are enjoying our cricket because we are not the most favourite team in this competition. India is the most favourite team. We have played above our expectations. So we are very confident."
While Afridi was at ease, Dhoni behaved as though he was walking a tightrope. The match had attracted extra attention, and will be attended by the premiers of India and Pakistan, other political heavy weights and celebrities. Was it difficult to stay immune to the hype? "It should not be affecting us really because we all know it is a big tournament and we have prepared a lot for it," Dhoni said. "We are playing the semi-finals. The most important thing is how you prepared yourself irrespective of what is happening around you. And that is what we have been doing in the past few days."
Wasn't there a danger of losing focus in such a climate? "It depends on what you actually mean by hype - the hype created by the media, the sponsors. We are not getting involved and that is what is important. You need to be aware of what we are expected to do and we are expected to play good cricket on the field. All these things have been part of the Indian cricket for a long time. Of course the biggest distinguished guests will be there to see the game but they are here to enjoy cricket, which means we will have to play well and we will prepare well and see how it goes."
Dhoni said his team was focussed and had become used to the attention. And it was not the first time the players were part of such an experience. "When you talk about hype, pressure etc., one thing is sure: whether you are thinking about it, or not thinking about it, I don't think it really helps you perform. So what is not helping you perform needs to be kept away."
The foreign media was more interested in whether cricket was playing the bridge in bringing two neighbours back to the mediation table after bilateral talks between India and Pakistan were fractured following the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008. Dhoni said he would prefer being a player to being a diplomat.
Neither Dhoni nor Afridi would readily admit that the pressure would be immense. Afridi acted as though he did not have a care in the world. Dhoni said the focus would remain on the match. When both walk into the din created by 28,000 fans, their nerves will face a tremendous test.
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