Six months ago, India and Pakistan were coming to terms with their early World Cup exits. All seemed to have been forgotten when, a little over a month ago, they battled for the World Twenty20 title. Then Australia came to India and South Africa to Pakistan. And both sides are back to learning from their mistakes. It's these glorious cycles that grips both nations.
Surely it allows the teams to understand each other, as evinced by the camaraderie this evening. Once both sides finished warming up, Harbhajan Singh and Shoaib Akhtar, standing close to the pitch for close to 20 minutes, seemed to be discussing life, the universe and everything. Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Yousuf greeted each other like long, lost brothers. And Sourav Ganguly couldn't get enough of watching Sohail Tanvir's wrong-footed action. Such dosti.
Geoff Lawson recently said that an India-Pakistan series is "bigger than the Ashes" but Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Shoaib Malik, the captains in charge, claimed otherwise. "It's like playing any other team," Dhoni said casually. "Maybe for you guys [the media] it's bigger than the Ashes. But personally it doesn't matter if it's Australia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Zimbabwe or any other team. Also, we've played against Pakistan a lot recently. It eases the pressure."
Sreesanth, while bowling at the nets in the eastern side of the ground, came perilously close to making news. A swinging yorker crashed into Sourav Ganguly's right ankle and had him hobbling. A quick spray and a ginger massage later, Ganguly was smiling again, going on to have a bowl.
If he plays, which he should, the problem could arise at No.3. Gautam Gambhir or Virender Sehwag? Recent form points to Gambhir, past record to Sehwag. Dhoni said it was a toss-up between the two, adding that Sehwag, despite losing his father a few days back, was in "good nick".
The short square boundaries could dissuade India from playing two spinners, though the pitch could aid turn later on. "This is one of the grounds where we could have extended the boundary ropes," Dhoni said. "It's quite a small ground, and both sides have spinners who will have a big impact on the game. Definitely they will suffer a bit if it turns out to be a flat wicket. A 60-65 yard outfield is worrying for bowlers."
Pakistan, though, might go with two spinners irrespective - both Abdur Rehman and Shahid Afridi troubled South Africa recently. "I don't think our spinners will struggle in these type of grounds," Malik said. "We had tried different combinations in the series against South Africa, and that was partly keeping the series against India in mind," said Malik. "Now, we have an idea about the combination and I am confident that we have players for every role."
No politics, please
Pakistan's media manager Ahsan Malik made it clear that the political situation back home wasn't going to affect the series. "We are here to play cricket and the team is focussing only on that." He also requested that the Pakistan captain be questioned only on cricketing matters. Dhoni didn't say much except, "How the players handle it is up to how mentally tough they are. I am only looking forward to the cricket."
The sun went down at around 4:40 pm on match eve and it's prompted the two teams to agree to an 8:30 am start. "The first hour is crucial" is normally brushed aside as a plain cricketing cliché but it's of significance here. Eight of the eleven games here have seen captains inserting the opposition (including the previous completed match here, when Australia were reduced to 61 for 4 before Michael Bevan undertook his customary rescue mission.
Hardly has one commented about the chaos at the Nehru Stadium in Guwahati, what with fans clamouring for autographs and thousands of security men for space, than a seasoned observer points out: "Wait for tomorrow. You haven't seen anything yet." If we go entirely by captain talk, this is another run-of-the-mill series. No frills, no hype, no anticipation. But one sight of the stadium and you're convinced that's plain claptrap. Expect the pleasantries to be left back in the hotel rooms. India v Pakistan doesn't come with as feverish an edge as ten years earlier but it's not all about dosti either.
India 1 Sachin Tendulkar, 2 Sourav Ganguly, 3 Virender Sehwag, 4 Yuvraj Singh, 5 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt & wk), 6 Robin Uthappa, 7 Irfan Pathan, 8 Murali Kartik, 9 Harbhajan Singh, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Sreesanth.
Pakistan 1 Kamran Akmal (wk), 2 Salman Butt, 3 Younis Khan, 4 Mohammad Yousuf, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq, 6 Shoaib Malik (capt), 7 Shahid Afridi, 8 Sohail Tanvir, 9 Rao Iftikhar Anjum, 10 Abdur Rehman, 11 Shoaib Akhtar.