Dormant historic rivalry on the cusp of eruption

The headline in the News after Pakistan's Champions Trophy win Getty Images

They will tell you the first India-Pakistan clash on Wednesday is all but meaningless. They will tell you the two sides will anyway meet in the Super Four stage, unless Hong Kong upset India. They will tell you how both teams should experiment. Yet the same people are also asking, 'Where is Virat Kohli?' The same people have ensured the match is a sellout; not even the high-end hospitality seats are available.

The organisers are expecting such a rush that a two-layer check-point system has been installed along the two-kilometer route to the Dubai International Stadium, instead of just at the entry to the stands. The gates will be thrown open at noon, three-and-a-half hours prior to the first ball. So much for billing this as an India-Pakistan clash without the extra spice.

Context or no-context, individually, the players are all aware of being one performance away from being a hero. It doesn't matter that Shikhar Dhawan failed in the England Tests. A hundred on Wednesday will undo two months of the 'instinctive half-forward press and poke to the slips.'

Fakhar Zaman catapulted his way to superstardom at the Champions Trophy final last year, when he bruised India's attack to make a match-winning hundred.

Hasan Ali was on the podium kissing the trophy after playing key roles in dismantling South Africa, Sri Lanka, and England in the semi-final, where he ensured Pakistan weren't hurt by Mohammad Amir's absence because of a back spasm.

Then in the final, he drilled the final nail into India and celebrated all night. Only two weeks earlier, he had dropped Yuvraj Singh at long-off in their opening game, and then watched him wallop their famed fast bowling with sage-like calm. It was Hasan's first-ever outing against India, a moment he may have thought about all his life, but one that also left him needing to forget it very quickly.

Only a year prior to that Champions Trophy game, at the Pakistan Super League, he had heard a journalist ask his team manager: 'Who is this guy and why have you brought him to the press conference?' At The Oval that night, Hasan was the toast of the nation. From 'Tell us about yourself', the theme had changed to 'Can we please have an interview?'

Ask Mohammad Kaif. After a horrendous group game where India were shot out for 125 by Australia at the 2003 World Cup, angry fans threw black paint on the front walls of his home in Allahabad. Two weeks later, after he had starred in a match-winning partnership with Sachin Tendulkar in that famous Centurion game, the same people returned to repaint his house and repair damage. Glass panes lay shattered in MS Dhoni's house in Ranchi after India's first-round exit from the 2007 world cup. Six months later, after he led India to the World T20 title by beating Pakistan in the final, they were waiting for hours outside the airport for his arrival to hoist him on their shoulders.

This is the essence of the India-Pakistan rivalry, one that evokes passion, hunger, the win-at-all-cost mentality. At times there have been frayed tempers, exchanges of words, angry glances and stares on the field. The players, however, have mutual respect for each other. When Shoaib Malik, a couple of days ago, walked up to greet MS Dhoni and have a long chat after training, there was chatter about life, family and much else. Anything but cricket. Rohit Sharma and Sarfraz Ahmed shared a joke, whispered into each other's ear and laughed heartily at the pre-tournament press conference when Angelo Mathews was asked about the 'Naagin dance.'

Twelve years ago, Rohit and Sarfraz were starry-eyed teenagers trying to make a transition from age-group cricket to their domestic teams. International call-ups were still some distance away. Sarfraz had just masterminded Pakistan's Under-19 World Cup title by snatching a win from under India's nose in the final. Rohit, India's No. 3 then, was out to a devious inswinger from Anwar Ali for 4, and the team folded for just 71. This was the first imprint Sarfraz left as a leader. Their Champions Trophy conquest over the same opponents was still over a decade away.

On Wednesday, Rohit will take the field with the knowledge that he is captain supreme on this tour. He has carved for himself an impressive track record since first being recognised as captain by Ricky Ponting and the Mumbai Indians team management. He has masterminded three IPL titles - in 2013, 2015 and 2017 - and has also led India to an ODI series win against Sri Lanka followed by the famous Nidahas Trophy win earlier this year.

Sarfraz, meanwhile, has managed to maintain the stability Misbah-ul-Haq maintained for over seven years since taking over after the spot-fixing scandal of 2010. Sarfraz is now Pakistan's undisputed leader, their pilot, with coach Mickey Arthur the co-commander. It's a partnership that prioritises fitness, ability, form and trust - in that order.

The UAE has been home to Pakistan since 2009. India once loved coming here every summer for a tri-series until the match-fixing scandal in 2000. The country was unofficially blacklisted by the BCCI, with only a hastily-arranged two-match series, with Rahul Dravid and Inzamam-ul-Haq as captains, scheduled in 2006. Then, when they needed to reschedule IPL 2014 because of general elections in India, the old love story was rekindled. Even after that, it has taken four years for India's players to land up in Dubai for cricket, and not just in transit or for property hunting. That 2006 series was lost upon Rohit, who possibly isn't a statistics or trivia person. However, he knows it was here that his captaincy was seriously tested for the first time during the IPL in 2014, when Mumbai lost all their five games before returning for the India leg.

As it was then, it's his batting order that he is most likely to have to try and determine as India build towards the 2019 World Cup. The match itself will be a dress rehearsal before a dress rehearsal - yes, the teams could play each other as many as three times should they reach the final, making it a mini India-Pakistan series. Pakistan are already pondering managing Amir's workload, and have three other left-arm fast bowlers in their line-up. It's more than likely that their spinners will have a bigger role in the dry heat and slow surfaces. In reality, can both teams actually treat it as a 'normal game' that they so often insist?

There's also a huge commercial angle to watch out for. The question most asked, by the baggage handler or the taxi drivers, is: 'Why is Kohli not here?' Star, the official broadcasters, reportedly wanted to renegotiate their broadcast deal given the absence of India's most commercially viable cricketer currently. If you're outside the venue, though, you'd be made to believe the World Cup final is here and the entire universe has descended. Everyone is making a beeline for tickets.

The flags, horns, drums, dhols, conch, desi version of the vuvuzela - they're all doing brisk business. A hawker warns how the same conch will cost you twice the price on match day. They're all there - speaking fluent Marathi to Punjabi to Pashto - asking you for custom-made imprint for the big day, more than 24 hours in advance. The sound system was on test, as were the water sprinklers, the security personnel were all briefed by their superiors for an hour-long meeting ahead of the big day, even as they were in preparation for India-Hong Kong.

This is India-Pakistan. A sleeping giant of a rivalry that is itching to renew itself on a much grander scale, minus the politics. This is the rivalry that propelled a generation of cricketers, and administrators and governments have an opportunity to ensure the current generation isn't denied the thrills and spills that an India-Pakistan match brings. For now, the coming week is as exciting as it comes.