India v Pakistan, ICC World Twenty20 warm-up, The Oval June 3, 2009

More than just a warm-up

Charity matches are normally about being nice, but if that theory was ever to be tested, it was when India clashed with Pakistan on Wednesday.

History and emotions run deep in contests between the two nations; sentiments that intensified further after India's last-over victory over Pakistan in the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 two years ago. Indeed, the tournament director, Steve Elworthy, placed the "warm-up" match into perspective when he told Cricinfo prior to play: "This is the biggest game in the tournament." There is nothing quaint about matches between the Asian neighbours.

Pakistan coach Inthikab Alam suggested as much during the week when, with an inscrutable smile, he responded to a question about whether both teams would treat the contest more seriously than a centre-wicket practice. "Even if it is a practice game both sides will take it seriously," he said, "That has always been the case." Nothing betrayed that sentiment on Wednesday.

With tensions between India and Pakistan still inflamed in the wake of the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai last year, it seems unlikely the two teams will meet in the near future outside of ICC events. Given the prevailing political climate, this warm-up game was immensely significant.

The crowds came in big numbers, the players displayed their usual aggro, the Oval swayed back and forth as the Indian and Pakistan fans drummed up support for their respective teams. The most important element in any Indo-Pak tussle is the crowd: take them out and the oval becomes an arid zone. And when the fans started to pour into the Kennington complex four hours before the schedule start, another intense affair seemed assured. Not even the unseasonably cold weather could deter them.

MS Dhoni and co. had been asked throughout IPL2 - relocated to South Africa at the eleventh hour - if they had been missing the throbbing crowds which filled stadia across India during the first edition of the tournament. The answer, emphatically, was yes. But for three hours on Wednesday, Kennington's oval resembled Kolkata's gardens, and the match was played with all the passion and fervour of a true local contest. A homecoming of sorts.

Anticipating the enormity of the event, tournament organisers left little to chance. "The people in charge of security had already briefed us that they had beefed up the security ahead of such a big game," Elworthy said. Still, with relations between the cricketing nations deteriorating of late, emotions were always likely to fray, and scuffles and evictions were witnessed in at least three sections of the ground. These, however, did not spoil the over all atmosphere, which some supporters described as being "like a jalsa" (festive).

From the moment Praveen Kumar unleashed his first delivery of the match, The Oval reverberated with the chants of "Indiaaaaa, Indiaaaa". And when the athletic and proactive Suresh Raina ran out the dangerous Kamran Akmal, the decibel levels increased ten-fold, particularly after Raina's extravagant celebration, in which he galloped towards the dugout as if he had won an Olympic medal.

Critics have suggested India and Pakistan matches are scheduled too frequently, and thus have become devalued in the public eye. Not on the evidence of Wednesday. "It always has such an intensity," Dhoni said of his side's rivalry with Pakistan. "This was expected, a big crowd. This will be the best crowd you will get a tournament. We played New Zealand in front of hardly any crowds. It helps us to give your best."

Amidst the party-like atmosphere - the air was full of bubbling excitement - the fans did not neglect to show their appreciation for good cricket: the Indians fans acknowledged the brilliant efforts of Ahmed Shehzad who ran backwards to hold on to a brilliant catch and cut short Rohit Sharma's stunning innings on 80.

"Shrunk format has expanded cricket's boundaries," read a placard, held by an Indian fan in the Jack Hobbs stand. On the evidence of Wednesday, it also crossed borders.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo