ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
India v Pakistan, 2nd semi-final, World Cup 2011, Mohali
The mayhem of an India-Pakistan game
On the day of every match, for countrymen on either side, along with the cricketers, history, culture, war, and geopolitics also walk out to the middle. It is a completely unfair notion but has stoked a six-decade rivalry
Sharda Ugra in Mohali
March 29, 2011
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Preview : Mercurial outsiders v solid favourites
Sambit Bal : Only a match in Mohali
Features : The joy of cricket
Audio/Video: Misbah-ul-Haq: Afridi has led by example
Matches: India v Pakistan at Mohali
Series/Tournaments: ICC Cricket World Cup
There was thunder and lightning in Mohali. The night before a game of cricket, the clouds were rumbling, the winds were howling and the skies were streaked with flashes of heated silver. The advent of summer in this part of the Punjab isn't usually marked by loud messages from the Himalayas like these. It is not hard to imagine why it was different on Tuesday night. The subcontinent's fractious, umbilically-bound neighbours have opened their windows and let in a World Cup semi-final.
India and Pakistan co-exist in general grumpiness, rubbing shoulders like two men diving into a phone booth at the same time or jostling for elbow room when sitting next to each other in a darkened cinema.
India versus Pakistan is a bit different.
When that happens, the cricket suddenly morphs into a new life form. On the day of every match, for countrymen on either side, along with thirteen cricketers, history, culture, war, and geopolitics also walk out to the middle. It is a completely unfair notion, particularly for the teams involved. But the idea has stoked a rivalry for over six decades and ensures that reality and reason leave the stadium and millions of living rooms at the same time. India versus Pakistan brings the two nations to a standstill and - and this should come as a public advisory below the live feed of every India v Pakistan match - makes television executives go ga-ga.
When India versus Pakistan happens in the World Cup semi-final on Wednesday it is two teams of players who will be required to be the sober professionals because most of the subcontinent will by then have been drugged by jingoism and chauvinism. Once the handshaking is done, the teams must forget that their two prime ministers are watching them from the stands and have only decided to start talking after several years it would seem because this match turned up.
All of that that must somehow be rendered unimportant - because when the two nations play, the abnormality of all around them is what is normal. In this scenario, both the Indian and Pakistani cricketers are well-trained. This extreme is their everyday.
India have spent the World Cup living in their bullet-proof bubble so far, progressing at an unhurried pace which can be seem unnerving to watch. Yet, after a straggly start, it was only in their last match, after seven attempts, that India went from being the Cup's slightly underdone hosts to genuine contenders.
In Ahmedabad, they lost the toss, fielded in the heat with a standard that suddenly went from grandfatherly to athletic middle age, before chasing against three-time world champions Australia and showing their steel.
In Mohali, they have to be sharp and shiny, too because between the two teams, it is India's margins that are far more narrow. To not progress to the final of a World Cup where everything has been laid out to take them to the trophy would be seen as a crushing let down by MS Dhoni's men. The scale of this match against Pakistan can only be understood by two things: the security personnel involved, who teem through Mohali in scores, and the fact that the semi-final has even diminished the attention around Sachin Tendulkar's 100 international 100s. The man appears to have streaked his hair in what looks like red. When he first arrived on the ground in Mohali on Sunday he began knocking with a set of new bats and shouted across to his mates who had begun their football, "Call me if your are in trouble, I will be there." Against Pakistan, India will want Tendulkar around, minus trouble.
In the midst of the mayhem, if there is one constant at work for the Indians during this World Cup - which Zaheer Khan described the day before the game - it is its "nice and calm dressing room". India's has been a slow journey in the tournament, as if the gas in the tank was far too low and could only be used sparingly. It all goes well until Pakistan turns up because trying to cling to ideas of calm at that point is like trying to meditate in an Aerosmith concert. It is not impossible but requires very high skill to achieve. If slow turn at most of the other venues - and Yuvraj Singh - is what has helped them against other teams so far, in Mohali, India will want the sheer weight of runs to wear out the Pakistan bowlers.
Pakistan are happy to embrace whatever is being thrown at them. Be it questions about the spot-fixing crisis, the statements from their Interior Minister talking about tapping their phones, the entire Shoaib Akhtar drama or people back home demanding victories. If Shahid Afridi's media conference is to be believed, getting to the World Cup semi-final and being in Mohali, represents everything: team unity, Indo-Pak relations, the overall Pakistani strike-rate with the bat, issues of the average age of his team and future relations and cricket itineraries between the two nations.
India are playing a most un-Indian percentage game and Pakistan are Pakistan and now playing without fear. The size of the ground, the pace off the wicket and the enormity of the occasion may force teams to even throw the last dice of their World Cup in here on Wednesday. So it could be Shoaib Akhtar turning up for one last tilt at Tendulkar. And Yusuf Pathan turning up to match Afridi and Razzak, brutish blow for brutish blow.
In a match of this magnitude, India will be secure in the knowledge, like Yuvraj said after the quarter-final, that they know how to handle high pressure situations during difficult passages of play. Afridi's "emotional" captaincy has brought Pakistan this far, yet in a this game, where emotions have boiled over before a ball has been bowled, it is the lack of it that may just work better. Reason and reality may have left the stadium and both their countries, but the men that can hang on to it on the field will take their team to the World Cup final.
In the midst of all this, there will be talks between prime ministers, paperwork between bureaucrats and dinners of vital importance laid out in stadium dining halls with many backs no doubt turned away from the cricket.
Given the importance both governments have placed on this single cricket match, perhaps an equal regard should be extended to those involved in it. Maybe Afridi and Dhoni's crisis management capabilities should be recognised by inviting them sit in during one of those Indo-Pak 'summit meetings.' Between them, the captains of India and Pakistan can cover the entire spectrum of responses that work in conflict resolution. Or at the very least they certainly know how to deal with a larger audience outside that just wants a result.
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