When India play Pakistan, what people expect is not a sporting contest but a war minus the shooting. I sometimes suspect that some of us would not mind a little bit of shooting if it could be sneaked past the pesky Laws of Cricket. How often have you heard of Indian cricketers being reminded that no matter what else you do, you don't lose to Pakistan in the World Cup? In the 2011 World Cup, many Indian fans would have minded India losing to Australia in the quarter-final less than they would have minded India losing to Pakistan in the semi-final - though the former loss would have meant an earlier exit.
Overall, Pakistan hold the edge against India, as they do against all major opposition. Pakistan have won 72 of 126 ODIs against India to date. Pakistan hold a 19-11 record in India, while India hold a 11-14 record in Pakistan.
This history can be broken down cleanly into four periods. Many of you will recognise the dates in the table below. They mark red-letter days in India-Pakistan ODI contests. Whether these breakpoints were causes of shifts or symptoms of them is an open question. I tend to favour the latter view. Each breakpoint represents an iconic India v Pakistan game which is embedded in the collective minds of cricket fans in the subcontinent.
The central fact that stands out in these figures is how little the outcomes of India-Pakistan games have to do with the overall strength of each team during an era. In the first two phases, I have excluded Sri Lanka from the list of non-minnow Test teams. Between 1986 and 1996, India's record against Australia, West Indies and England was better than Pakistan's. Pakistan built a winning record against South Africa (7-5) while India suffered a losing record (6-8). Both India and Pakistan built strong winning records against New Zealand. Given this, Pakistan's utter dominance against India during this period is surprising. They beat India in 11 out of 12 games in Sharjah and six out of seven in India. The record belies the conventional wisdom about Pakistan being a strong ODI side during this period.
Pakistan's batsmen did worse against top teams than India during this period. Against West Indies, Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa, India averaged 226 for 8 per 50 overs during this period. Pakistan averaged 217 for 8. Against India, Pakistan averaged 242 for 8 per 50 overs, while India managed 228 for 9 per 50 overs against Pakistan. In conditions that are traditionally considered favorable for fast bowling, India held their own against Pakistan. In the subcontinent, the Pakistani bowlers were dominant.
Javed Miandad's brilliance in Sharjah on that afternoon in April 1986 had a lasting impact on Pakistan's rivalry with India. It took an ageing Miandad's dismissal, run out trying to steal a second run for 38, and Ajay Jadeja's brutal assault of a declining Waqar Younis to end Pakistan's spell of dominance, ten years later.
India did not produce a winning record against Pakistan over the next seven years. But this was because Pakistan were genuinely the better overall team during this period, as their record against other top teams, relative to India's, shows. Saqlain Mushtaq emerged as a brilliant limited-overs bowler. Wasim Akram and Waqar had lost some of their bite by the late '90s but remained competent new-ball bowlers. Their returns did not quite match those of Allan Donald, Glenn McGrath, Shaun Pollock, Saqlain, Muttiah Muralitharan and even Shoaib Akhtar in these years. Waqar, especially, lost a bit of pace and conceded five an over. Even so, the firepower of the Pakistan line-up, bolstered by the all-round talents of Abdul Razzaq, Shahid Afridi and Azhar Mahmood, gave Pakistan an edge.
This Pakistan team reached its end after the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. Of the XI that India faced in Centurion on March 1, 2003, ten players would play at least 150 ODIs each. That game featured eight of Pakistan's ten most-capped ODI players of all time to this day. The 22 players in that game at Centurion boasted a combined 3393 ODI caps. The median player had 137 caps. By comparison, eight years later, the median player in the World Cup semi-final of 2011 had 117 caps.
That result in Centurion broke Pakistan's prolonged spell of superiority over India, which had lasted 17 years. Since then, the two sides have been better matched. India have beaten Pakistan in Pakistan in five-match ODI series three times. They have gone through two team transitions. First, Sourav Ganguly's team gave way to Rahul Dravid's in 2005, and then Dravid's team gave way to MS Dhoni's in 2008. Pakistan have gone through too many transitions to count. By way of comparison: 75 different players have represented India in 300 ODIs against top Test-playing teams since March 2, 2003; 76 have represented Pakistan in 229 ODIs against top teams in the same period.
The shape of the rivalry has changed. India have undoubtedly been the better overall ODI side since 2003, as their record against top teams shows. India have won eight out of 12 in Pakistan, but have lost nine out of 16 in India against Pakistan. Each side has won three times when playing top-eight sides in Test series outside Asia. Pakistan's results against India in recent years have been aided by the fact that some of their players have played out of their skins in these games.
Consider Nasir Jamshed, Salman Butt, Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan and Mohammad Hafeez. Against India since that Centurion game, their record has been at the level of Virat Kohli. Against other top Test-playing teams (excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe), their record is closer to that of Mohammad Ashraful. They made a century every seven innings against India, and every 38 innings against other top teams.
Pakistan raise their game against India. Their performances against India have arguably buttressed their overall reputation to some excess. In cricketing terms, their success against India can be put down to their strong bowling. While Pakistan's batting has typically been competent and resourceful, but never intimidatingly good, it has been more than sufficient against India's below-average attacks. In world tournaments outside the subcontinent, the conditions have helped India's bowling more than they have helped Pakistan's batting. The result is a 7-2 record in India's favour in such tournaments outside Asia, and a 10-10 record overall. India's batting has been deeper and more power-packed in recent years than it used to be in the 1990s.
India may well face Pakistan again in the knockout phase of the 2015 World Cup, and they may lose. But should they lose, and should it mark the end of Dhoni's reign as India captain, there is nothing in Pakistan's recent performances to suggest that such a defeat will mark the beginning of a new era in the India-Pakistan rivalry. Dhoni's exit is unlikely to be epoch-changing in the way Wasim and Waqar's exits in 2003 proved to be.