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The lovey-dovey rivalry between India and Pakistan

The players are mindful of the attention this game gets. But they have long since stopped buying into the hype

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Once upon a time, the hype for India vs Pakistan was strong enough to bring two countries to a standstill. It elicited talk of war and battle, judgment day and how you could lose to anyone but the arch-rival. How just beating the 'enemy' was akin to winning a World Cup.
You would hear former players have a go at each other, cross-border TV shows would feature players and fans pronouncing their verdict, TV distributors hiking prices of the channel - pre-Satellite television days - knowing full well people would go any lengths to pay for the service.
As much as the geopolitical landscape may prevent the two teams from playing bilaterally, and trigger war-time analogies, things are far different on neutral shores. It is, as a few fans noted, "way too lovey-dovey" and "more friendly than before."
At ground zero, the jingoistic overtones are missing, but that shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of buzz or excitement. The interest is surreal. Tickets have been sold out more than 10 days in advance. Premium seating is being sold for as high as AED 6000 (USD 1663 approx). Just for context, the same seats for any other game in the tournament is priced at AED 400 (USD 108 approx).
The opening night, for Sri Lanka vs Afghanistan, was far from a sellout. Until the eleventh hour, organisers were hoping to lure in more fans, like the ones who keep turning up at Dubai Sports City seeking tickets for Sunday's blockbuster.
Big corporate houses in India are flying in charters for four hours of fun. The hospitality areas have been given a complete makeover to accommodate specific requests. Net sessions are being held off-site, at the ICC Academy, to give the organisers a free run of the stadium so that they can go through their security arrangements.
At the training venue, fans have made a beeline for players from both sides and they've all been happy to oblige, even if it means jumping over the picket fence to meet them, like Rohit Sharma did, walking across to the opposite end of the ground to pose for pictures with a Pakistani fan. Only a 10-feet fence stood in the way of the fan and Rohit, but just a mere 'handshake and a virtual hug was enough for him to go home happy.
Kohli must have signed a 100 miniature bats, Rishabh Pant must have posed a 100 selfies, Babar Azam must have got cramp just from waving. It all seems par for the course.
Among the players too, there's a relaxed vibe. KL Rahul caught up with Shaheen Shah Afridi to enquire about his injury, Kohli and Pakistan batting coach Mohammad Yousuf had a chat beside the boundary, Pant and Mohammad Rizwan exchanged friendly banter followed by high fives and laughter.
At press conferences, players have been asked, repeatedly, about all this bonhomie. Rahul said they couldn't run away from the "rivalry" even if it looks a little different from what it was in the past.
The players are mindful of the attention this game gets. They understand the hype is a byproduct of anticipation because India and Pakistan don't play bilateral cricket anymore. It's highly likely Kohli and Rohit could end their careers without playing a Test against Pakistan, ditto with Babar and Rizwan against India. An entire generation may miss out on this opportunity.
One thing is clear, though. The current generation of players, on both sides, don't buy into the 'revenge match' narrative. They know it a 'final before a final' and certainly not 'do or die'. To them, India vs Pakistan is just a cricket match played between a lot of good friends. Last month, Babar put out a message of support for Kohli, whose response was equally cordial. And right here, at the press conference, Shadab Khan went even further. When asked if he agreed with the experts when they say Kohli no longer instils fear in a bowler's mind. "They (the former cricketers) don't play anymore, that's why they think that he doesn't instil fear," he replied with a laugh. "He is a legend of the game, he has performed quite a lot. Whenever he comes, you are a bit scared because he is a big player. My duas for him to score a hundred very soon, but not against us (laughs)."
There are online counters marking the number of days since Kohli's last century. It's like 1008, or maybe 1009? Eh, never mind. The fans are happy just to see him, out there, doing his thing. Every shot he played in the nets was cheered by a fanatic support group that trooped into the ICC Academy every day, armed with flags and strong vocal cords. Every big hit over the fence has elicited yelps of 'come on, Virat!'. Sunday will mark his 100th T20I, making him the second player to play as many games across all formats.
So you see, this is a carnival. A giant party waiting to take off. As always, the organisers and the security personnel were the busiest, ensuring everything is foolproof. This match may be at a neutral venue, but there's nothing neutral about the arrangements. It's as elaborate it might be if this game was being held in India or Pakistan. So there will be frisking, there will be metal detectors, thermal scanners, X-ray machines and everything else fans dread, but withstand all too happily. Because it's India vs Pakistan and it's finally here.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo