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The meaning of India-Pakistan, for India and for Pakistan

For one of these two great rivals, this is just another game. For the other? Well, it's complicated

Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Hafeez cheer their team-mates during a nets session, World Cup 2019, Old Trafford, June 15, 2019

Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Hafeez cheer their team-mates during a nets session  •  AFP

There were long evenings, even entire months, when some meagre salve could be found for deep wounds in the thought that if you took the batsmen of India and put them together with the bowlers of Pakistan, you would not only be holding a team-sheet that is 100% dynamite, but would also be solving some "issues" in the process. That this was not only to acknowledge cricketing realities but also express an acceptable degree of regret and yearning without being called a traitor.
Those evenings weren't as long ago as they now feel. We cannot reverse generational change, and it doesn't feel like geopolitical realities can be reshaped right now. But cricketing realities have changed as much, and ahead of the seventh match between India and Pakistan at a World Cup, nobody can say a team of Indian batsmen and Pakistani bowlers would be stronger than either team as a separate entity.
India are the stronger batting side. India have the better bowling attack. India have the fitter players. India have the sharper fielders. India have the better wicketkeeper. India have the greats. India have the freakish talents.
Backed into a corner and forced to pick from this Pakistan squad? Maybe Mohammad Amir, but only so that the combined team could claim to have that angle of attack (India have no left-arm quick). Mohammad Hafeez. You laugh, but here are his figures for the year at No. 4 and here are those of India's No. 4s for this year. Fine, you can still laugh, but numbers are numbers.
"I don't want to say it's the biggest rivalry in sport, but I saw some stats, you know, which said I think the soccer World Cup final attracted 1.6 billion viewers. Tomorrow likely to get 1.5 billion. It doesn't get bigger than that"
Mickey Arthur, Pakistan coach
And just as India have risen and Pakistan have remained, essentially, Pakistan, and time has moved further away from 1947, and populations have become younger, so too has this rivalry begun to change.
Certainly to India's players it matters less. An amount of bragging points, of course, but as Virat Kohli took great, great pains to point out at his pre-match press conference, it's about them, not the opponents (and thus the rivalry). Five of the first six questions put to him were basically variations on how to deal with Pakistan, specifically how to handle their unpredictability, their main threats, Amir, yada, yada, yada.
Each time, Kohli's response was the same.
"We're not focusing on the opposition, so no one's a threat."
"Look, as I said, we're not focusing too much on the strengths of the opposition."
"We're not focusing too much on what the opposition has to do or what they will bring to the table. We need to believe in our strengths."
The seventh question - itself revealing about the rivalry that it took so long for somebody to go there - was about the bigness of the occasion, of the madness of an India-Pakistan game.
No sir. Nice try. But refer to the answers above please. This is just another game where we have to be really good.
Pakistan? Well, it's complicated. Partially, that's because of the immediate context of this game. This could've been South Africa or New Zealand and it would still be as important because they can't afford to lose this game. They can, but then will have to start relying on other results to stand a chance of progressing to the last four.
But over the past two days, a couple of their younger players have let on about the bigness of this contest, acknowledging that yes, it isn't just any other game. Imam-ul-Haq first, who called it a "big pressure" game, and then Babar Azam, who agreed that doing well against India holds a different meaning.
Mickey Arthur appeared initially to be reading from the same script as Kohli had done. It's another game. Just two points, like every other game at this tournament. But eventually, in responding to a question about what the atmosphere will be like, he slipped.
"I don't want to say it's the biggest rivalry in sport, but I saw some stats, you know, which said I think the soccer World Cup final attracted 1.6 billion viewers. Tomorrow likely to get 1.5 billion. It doesn't get bigger than that. It doesn't get more exciting. I'm telling our players in the dressing room, you could be a hero tomorrow. Your careers are going to be defined by a moment in the game. You do something incredible tomorrow, you'll be remembered forever."
Here we have it, that age-old equation: game against India = chance to be a hero, a chance to change your life.
On reflection, that it holds for Pakistan still, that it is Pakistan trying to use this as motivation and not India, is understandable. A lot of these India players might never play against Pakistan and they'd still be heroes. They have the IPL, Australia and England for that. A lot of these India players could lose and remain heroes because they have the IPL, Australia and England still. A lot of these India players are already heroes. That is now the nature and reality of the most powerful cricket country in the world, off the field for a while, but now on it as well. By dint of simply playing for India means you are more than halfway to being a hero already.
Pakistan are the ones scrapping and trying to keep up. They are unequivocally the underdogs here and as long as they keep getting their selections wrong - as they have done so far in this tournament - they will remain the less likely to win. Even getting their selection right is no guarantee of victory.
That is the new real, the shift in the crux of this contest - that only if Pakistan win this, if they do find that hero, might we invest some new meaning in this rivalry.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo