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India win battle of nerves, their World Cup starts now

It is almost obscene that a game not of great consequence in the wider context of the World Cup - a tournament designed to provide marquee teams safe passage to the knockout round - should matter so much. It was only the fourth match of a seven week-long tournament but, for fans of India and Pakistan, a quarter-final loss would perhaps be more palatable than losing to the neighbour tonight.

Australia and England played out their own significant battle last night. England lost miserably after a promising start. It was a proper hiding, England fans wouldn't have found it pleasant. But there was quiet acceptance that the better team had won. Jokes were made on Twitter and, when the next World Cup comes around, there will be no chatter about the psychological scars of this defeat. It's unlikely that it will even be discussed.

It is not the lot of Indian and Pakistani cricketers to find such stoic or rational acceptance of defeat. No matter how much they convince themselves about this being just another game, the world around them wouldn't let them have the luxury of simple reality. In 1992, Pakistan lost to India but won the trophy. In 1999 they made it to the final. Only twice have defeats at the hands of India put Pakistan out of the tournament. But the India-Pakistan story runs a course parallel to the World Cup. It has an independent scoreline: 6-0, Indian fans will gloat after tonight, as if each win represents a mini cup.

One of my fellow passengers on the flight from Sydney this morning had paid A$900 for her ticket. She had left her two young children with friends to join her husband, who was already with his friends in Adelaide. One member of his group had flown in from the US, one from Singapore, one from Dubai and a couple had driven down from Melbourne. Her husband had insisted on her coming because India had never lost a match they had watched. When I suggested this might be Pakistan's best chance to win, she implored me to banish the thought: "We can't lose. Not tonight."

That's what these two teams are up against. Not skills, not form, not relative strengths. But the refusal of their supporters to countenance defeat. Nerve plays a role in every cricket match. In an India-Pakistan contest it is the X factor. India came through this match not merely because of the superiority of their batting but also because they have two men in their ranks who can keep their nerves and their wits on the biggest stage.

In the last World Cup final, Virat Kohli came in after Lasith Malinga had shaken the partisan crowd at Wankhede Stadium by claiming Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar early in a big chase. He ended the match its third-highest scorer but his 35 and his 83-run partnership with Gautam Gambhir settled India before MS Dhoni strode in to make the stage his own. He had been a relative passenger after his hundred in the tournament's opening match in Bangladesh; he was then the rookie in a glittering batting cast.

Now he is the leader of an inexperienced batting lineup that ends at No 6. He had hit a trough in one-day cricket after a sensational Test series against Australia, with the ball finding both his inside and outside edges in a pattern similar to his horror run in England last year. Perhaps he needed the buzz of a big match to switch on. Today even his walk to the crease bore the air of a man who wanted to own the stage.

Dhoni couldn't make it count in the last overs, when he came up against some skillful bowling from Sohail Khan and Wahab Riaz, but he was India's man when the team needed a clear and decisive head to marshal its limited bowling resources. He had chosen the aggressive route even before the toss by picking five bowlers and, with 300 runs to defend, he opted to attack. His fast bowlers made a nervy start, spraying wides in trying to bowl quick, but even after the second-wicket partnership had bedded in, Dhoni, bucking his tendency to hang back in Test matches, set fields to take wickets. The partnership was broken with a catch to first slip and, minutes later, another one was pouched in the slip.

For Pakistan, alas, the only man who could keep his nerve was left stranded. Misbah-ul-Haq was left fighting a hopeless cause as his young colleagues fell to the pressure of the mounting asking rate.

In reality, though, this must count as the weakest Pakistan team India have encountered in a World Cup, and the winning margin, their biggest against them in the tournament, was a reflection of the gap between the sides. Pakistan have never chased down a score of over 300 outside the subcontinent and, given the thinness of their batting, that record was unlikely to be corrected tonight. The better team won.

India have got this emotion-laden match out of the way. But much tougher challenges await their defense of the title. And the World Cup can now begin normal service.