India v Pakistan, World Cup 2011, 2nd semi-final, Mohali March 29, 2011

Only a match in Mohali

Twenty-two cricketers will subject their skills and temperament to the toughest of tests; equally, fans in both countries will be on trial

Fresh from his match-winning performance against Australia in the quarter-final, Yuvraj Singh inevitably found himself confronted with questions about the semi-final against Pakistan. "No point saying it will be a normal match," Yuvraj said. "You all expect us to win, the whole country expects us to win. We are doing the best we can and leaving the rest to God."

It's impossible not to feel for the players, all 22 of them. It is no point pretending that this is just another match. It is the semi-final of the World Cup. And it's between India and Pakistan. Between them, there has been Partition. Three wars. Suspicion. Animosity. Kashmir.

Also diplomacy. Politics. Attempted reconciliation. Cricket can never expect to fully free itself of the web of history. And though it is a huge and unfair burden that the cricketers carry, it is their reality.

But there is another way of looking at India and Pakistan. No two cricket nations have so much in common. There is the language and culture. Food. A shared passion for films and music. So much so that when an Indian or Pakistani lands either in Delhi or Lahore, it feels just like home. And Indian and Pakistani cricketers are friendlier with each other than they are with players from any other country. It's a natural kinship shared among them, perhaps reinforced by empathy. Look at this photograph of Shahid Afridi and MS Dhoni: it's hard to picture any other pair of captains presenting a picture of such warmth and comradeship.

I remember a conversation I had with Younis Khan, then captain of Pakistan, a couple of days after his team had beaten India in a Champions Trophy match in Pretoria in 2009. Younis spoke of chiding a couple of Indian television journalists who'd been chasing him for a quote that would damn Dhoni. "Why are you after Dhoni?" he asked them. "Winning and losing, it keeps happening. Today it is his turn, tomorrow it could be mine."

Younis wasn't being prescient, just real. A couple of days later he found himself before the firing squad, answering questions about match-fixing after having dropped a simple catch off Grant Elliot in the semi-final against New Zealand. Elliot went on to play a match-winning innings. Younis was playing with a broken finger. "A few days ago I took a catch and effected a run-out and I was praised for playing with a broken finger,'' he said. Some questioned his wisdom of playing with an injury, but had he pulled out, he would surely been accused of abdicating his responsibility to the country.

Sport is inextricably linked to national identity. Which isn't a bad thing by itself, because sport for the most part is a feel-good, positive force. It makes fans appreciate skills and beauty, the thrill of competition and of overcoming odds. But being a sports fan is as much about joy as it is about pain. It's part of the deal. For every winner there must be a loser. In fact, victory would never feel so thrilling without the experience of loss.

All sports, wrote Simon Barnes in The Meaning of Sport, "represent the collision of wills: people or teams who want the same thing and have to cause somebody pain in order to get it". It is easy, if you so choose, to find in this a metaphor for warfare, but the beauty of sport is that people rarely die playing it. Sportsmen compete fiercely and proudly, exhausting themselves mentally and physically in the pursuit of victory, and then the victor and vanquished walk off the field, shaking each other's hand, and often with the knowledge that no victory or loss is final. They will compete again tomorrow and there will be another shot at redemption. That is the essence of sport.

Partisanship is fundamental to fandom. It is the bedrock of sport. Without it sport would be reduced to a mere spectacle, devoid of its emotional core. By the same token, triumphalism is its biggest bane. Allied with nationalism, it presents the ugly face of sport. It blinds fans to the very spirit of competition between athletes.

Twenty-two cricketers will subject their skills and temperament to the toughest of tests tomorrow. Equally, the fans in both the nations will be on trial too.

Very few expected Pakistan to go so far so smoothly in this World Cup. Only a month ago their team lay in tatters following the spot-fixing verdict. Irrespective of what happens in Mohali, their performance in the World Cup is worthy of celebration. Indian fans never forget to remind the world that their team has not lost to Pakistan in a World Cup match. That is an impressive record. But it's not a run that can last forever. Nothing in life is permanent.

Fans should feel grateful the tournament has produced a semi-final that feels like a final. It is also appropriate that the match is taking place in Punjab. Mohali is a small town, lacking the facilities and space for such a high-profile match, but there couldn't have been a more perfect place, geographically and culturally, for a World Cup match between these two rivals.

Punjabiyat is the biggest common theme between these nations, and the spirit of hospitality is the defining characteristic of the Punjabi culture on both sides of the border. It has become a cliché now, but travelling to Pakistan during India's landmark tour of 2004 provided me with some of the most moving and uplifting experiences of my life. It was, and will remain, one of the greatest examples of how sport - and in the subcontinent that means cricket - can be a beacon for goodwill and fellow feeling.

And after the fans have spent themselves in cheering their teams, irrespective of the result, they will do well to evoke the spirit of Chennai in 1999 or Karachi in 2004. After their teams had lost emotionally draining encounters, the fans rose to make their sport, and nations, proud.

On the field tomorrow there is the opportunity for one team to take the penultimate step towards cricket's biggest prize. For Pakistan, for all its troubles inside and outside the game, a World Cup win will be the tonic that the nation needs. For Indians, above everything else, it will be the perfect gift for their most-adored sport hero. But a bigger opportunity lies beyond the boundary. To revel in victory is the greatest reward for the sports fan, but nothing dignifies the sport more than grace in defeat.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo