An encounter to stop a subcontinent
A cricket match can hold only so much weight. In that regard the forthcoming semi-final, a local derby as well, and a tussle between sometimes agitated old rivals, is bursting at the seams. In Chandigarh on the eve of the match, I came across someone offering US$1500 for a ticket, whilst a favoured tuk-tuk driver was urgently but forlornly seeking four for his family. Reporters have been instructed to arrive four hours before the first ball - happily it is not a morning start - and the local airport has been forced to find room for 50 private planes.
Interest is at fever pitch across the region. India's parliament is shutting up shop at 2.30 pm. A large screen has been erected in the halls of debate. Mumbai's taxi drivers are taking the day off. Companies are asking their employers to arrive at 7am, promising to stop work in time for the first ball. They, too, have put up screens in offices and on factory floors. Otherwise no one would turn up for work. The Melbourne Cup might stop a nation. India versus Pakistan in the World Cup stops a subcontinent.
It is a truth often repeated that locals follow not cricket but cricketers. At times that can seem to be the case, but on other occasions it seems unjust, even a little patronising. After all tens of thousands of supporters attended matches played between other nations, and along the way showed every sign of appreciating good cricket. And the same applies in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Keeping ticket prices low gave the common man and humble cricket lover an opportunity to watch the game. And he took it.
Now people are paying small fortunes to watch this clash of the neighbours, also described as a confrontation of the titans. Doubtless they are going to watch Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh, the reviving local champion. Doubtless they are keen to view the showdown. Is it possible, though, that the supporters might also be capable of appreciating the game itself?
As this World Cup has reminded all and sundry once again, cricket can count itself fortunate that it took hold in this region. Certainly trouble comes along with the location, but it is well worth the bother. Vast populations whose interest in the game shows no sign of waning, a rapidly rising middle class, and immense ability have been on display in this tournament. Three of the semi-finalists are from the area and they include the powerful, the impassioned and the original.
As far as the semi-final is concerned it has been cast as a battle between India's batting and Pakistan's bowling, and played before a baying crowd, the match ought to be memorable. Having outstared doom against Australia, the Indians may conclude their time has come. Advised by a government minister to avoid match-fixing, the Pakistanis may feel at once affronted and motivated. They, too, have come a long way, further than expected. In that regard they have nothing to lose, or nothing except a nation's foolishly attached pride.
India's strength lies in the depth and vigour of their batting. Sachin Tendulkar remains the master of all he surveys, but though the spotlight is still on him the pressure has been spread wider. Virender Sehwag is properly fit again, Virat Kohli looks at home, Suresh Raina will take confidence from his vital innings against Australia, and Mahendra Dhoni knows his mustard.
Nevertheless Yuvraj Singh is regarded as the most dangerous batsman. Already he has taken three Man-of-the-Match awards in this World Cup. Previously dismissed as a swiper with an inflated reputation, Yuvraj has emerged as a powerful and destructive batsman with a sturdy temperament. Nowadays he keeps the ball on the floor and looks fitter. His bowling has helped because it means he can be certain of his place and knows that whatever happens with the bat, he will contribute to the cause. Allrounders have a lot on their plate but less on their mind.
Like all the teams, India has batted without contrivance. Besides showing that 50-over cricket is alive and well, this tournament has also confirmed that cricket does not change all that much, remains a game between bat and ball, and that the laws of physics ought to be respected. The main asset needed by batsmen is the ability to flick the ball pitching on middle and heading towards leg away to the boundary with a neat roll of the wrists. Dilscoops, reverse sweeps, open-chested straight hits and the other innovations have been notable by their absence. They are too unreliable. The basics are back in business.
India's weakness is their bowling. One wag on ESPNcricinfo has suggested that India has been devastated by the news that Ashish Nehra and Munaf Patel are fit. A year or two ago India seemed to have a cupboard full of promising pacemen. Now the shelves seem almost empty. It is hard to avoid thinking that premature exposure to the good life takes a toll. Fast bowling demands high levels of focus and fitness.
Nehra and Patel have been ineffective, a headache for a team that recognises the importance of the No. 7 position - which has been one of the main developments in the game these last few years - and so opts to field a five-pronged attack, and that's including Yuvraj. However, Zaheer Khan has been superb, especially with the old ball, and Harbhajan is steady and combative. Even so, the Pakistanis will feel they can dominate.
Pakistan's main asset is their bowling. Shahid Afridi is the leading wicket-taker in the tournament and Umar Gul has been the best speedster. Afridi career has taken more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie story, but in these twilight years he has found his true calling as a leader, purveyor of tight, flat legbreaks, and lower-order smiter - in which regard his head remains a little hot.
Gul has improved enormously in a short period. His work depends on rhythm. His stride is long and unless precise can leave him off balance at delivery. Armed with the new ball, he nowadays approaches the crease purposefully, uses his height, musters a fine pace and swings the ball away from the bat. Later he retains his accuracy but adds a concealed slower ball. In short, he is a handful. If he can take a couple of early wickets the balance of power might shift.
Pakistan's batting has been steadied by the recall of the two elders, Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq. Not so long ago both were considered surplus to requirements - one of these quirks that seems to crop up more often in Pakistani cricket than in other dispensations. Now they walk out with the air of genial veterans tolerant of the wayward ways of youth and used to sorting out the messes they leave behind.
Pakistan's progress will also depend on the form shown by the mercurial Akmal brothers, Umar and Kamran. Both have cheerful round faces, lots of ability and the fearless outlook that makes the entire team dangerous. Afridi, too, can give the ball a wallop and will want to make up for his reckless dismissal in a previous match. Yet Asad Shafiq might hold the key because he brings skill and fortitude to his position at first wicket down. Some colleagues rely on mood and instinct but he sets a higher store by method and a technique tightened in the tape-ball contests in his childhood.
Both teams are capably coached and both are captained by characters expressing their contrasting traditions: Dhoni the cool, slightly detached and committed Indian and Afridi his impassioned, volatile and dangerous counterpart. Pakistan has every reason to be proud of its progress, whilst India can likewise be pleased that the pressures of favouritism and hosting the event have not so far told on them.
If Pakistan can get going it ought to be a cracker. But the main thing is that it is only a cricket match, a sporting encounter, an exhibition of nerve and skill, a contest at the mercy of the whims. The players will strive with every fibre in their bodies to rise to the occasion. The crowd faces the same challenge. Despite the foreboding, past performance indicates that all parties will bend over backwards to make sure that the meeting is as happy as is possible in a semi-final, an essentially mournful occasion, when much can be lost and nothing won.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It