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January 22, 2010
Azeem Ghumman and Ashok Menaria were not yet in their teens when Sachin Tendulkar blitzed Pakistan at Centurion in the 2003 World Cup. They were merely 17 when Misbah-ul-Haq came agonisingly close to snatching the inaugural World Twenty20 from India in 2007. The pressure an India-Pakistan match in a World Cup brings is storied and, on Saturday, these two teenage leaders will experience it for the first time - when their teams clash in the quarter-final of the Under-19 World Cup in Lincoln.
Indian and Pakistani sides have traditionally been the form teams at U-19 World Cups. They enter the tournaments as favourites and rarely fall out of contention before the semi-finals. One will tomorrow. Few expected them to come up against each other so early in the competition. Pakistan won all their league games and topped their group. India won the first two but dropped their last against England. If they hadn't, they would be playing West Indies.
"We are seething after the loss [to England], and we'll take it out against Pakistan," Meenaria told the Hindustan Times. "The world comes to a standstill when an India-Pakistan match is on."
Pakistan perhaps hold the edge. They scored big against West Indies, bowled Papua New Guinea out cheaply, and held their nerve to win a thriller against Bangladesh. They have the tournament's highest run-scorer, Babar Azam - 260 runs at an average of 130, and the joint highest wicket-taker, Usman Qadir - eight at 15 apiece.
The victories India scored were against Afghanistan and Hong Kong and they ensured India's qualification even before the loss to England. Unlike the 2008 campaign, when Tanmay Srivastava and Virat Kohli led the batting charts, this time India's highest runscorer - Rahul Kannaur with 117 in three innings - is 15th on the list. Saurabh Netravalkar, their left-arm fast bowler, could prove to be key. He was exceptional against England, rattling the top order and finishing with figures of 3 for 25.
There is an external factor - and a significant one - in India's favour. They are familiar with conditions at the Bert Sutcliffe Oval, having played two group matches there. Pakistan only got to Christchurch a few days ago - their group matches were on North Island. The pitch at the Bert Sutcliffe Oval aids seam bowling, and is good for batting when the sun shines. Scoring runs, however, requires a disciplined approach as India found out the hard way against England. They must learn quickly from their errors; Pakistan, however, have no second chances.
Another external factor, an uncontrollable one, favours Pakistan. It rained all day in Christchurch on the eve of the match and although Saturday's forecast is brighter one can never be certain. Should the match end in a washout, Pakistan will go through to the semi-final because of their better group position. There is no reserve day.
Pakistan's manager, Shafqat Rana, says this side is the best U-19 Pakistan side he has seen but he's aware of the gravity of the contest. "These children have never played India, forget in a World Cup game, but have grown up watching the high-intensity clashes between the two countries," he told the Indian Express. "They are aware of the expectations back home. Be it an U-13 India-Pakistan game or a veterans' contest, it will always remain special."
And then there's the raging controversy in the subcontinent over the Pakistan players being ignored by the IPL, and maybe it would provide the contest added edge. Rana didn't think so. "They are kids, they have very little idea about IPL auction and other issues," he said. The absence of intense media coverage could also help them focus better.
Ghumman, Menaria and their team-mates will say they're approaching the contest like they would any other. They can try, but all will not succeed. Even the wealth of Tendulkar's experience in pressure situations couldn't prevent him from living the Centurion match a year in advance. And even he slept poorly for 12 nights before d-day.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.