Going by their performance in the group stage of the cricket World Cup, Wednesday’s semifinal is going to be a battle between India’s power-packed batting line-up and the potent bowling of the the Pakistanis at the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) Stadium.
The build-up has been intense and to cap it all, the prime ministers of the two nations are going to witness the game from the presidential box of the beautiful stadium.
History is in India’s favour as they have never lost to their neighbours in the World Cup. The most exciting of their encounters was eight years ago when they beat Pakistan by four wickets chasing a 270-odd target thanks to Sachin Tendulkar’s classic 75-ball 98 at the Super Sport Park at Centurion. They went on play the final, only to be thrashed by Australia.
Both sides have their own viewpoints on their much-awaited clash. The Indians think they have their best chance of winning the Cup a second time, having won it in 1983, and the Pakistanis want to tell the cricket world that their country deserves international cricket at home.
Both captains tried to play down the pressure factor on the eve of the match. India’s Mahendra Singh Dhoni insisted that his team is aware what is expected out of it — playing good cricket — while his counterpart Shahid Afridi was equally vehement in saying that they were not expected to come so far and so there was no pressure on them.
The two teams won their quarterfinals in contrasting styles. India came through a much tougher game against Australia and the Pakistanis cantered to victory against the West Indies without breaking sweat.
The first thing the Indians have to address is their inexplicable batting collapse in three matches, losing nine wickets for 29 runs against South Africa being the worst. It is not a case of a bad start, even after Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Gambhir Singh provided the platform they could not take off from. Only Yuvraj Singh had been able to show some grit and determination to give them something to bowl at.
The last time Tendulkar played here against Pakistan he fell on 99, but this time, the crowd is expecting the great man to reach his 100th international century.
Having received four Man-of-the-Match awards for his all-round performance, local boy Yuvraj is due for another big knock at his home ground.
Yuvraj’s performance has stood out in the brittle middle-order. Against Australia, it was Yuvraj who held the innings together and with Raina, took the side to victory.
In the bowling department, Dhoni will be relying on his chief pace exponent Zaheer Khan, who is the second highest wicket-taker in the current competition with 17 wickets, four short of Afridi’s 21.
Afridi realises what it means to win the Cup.
In the last two years, Pakistan cricket has gone through hell. They were ostracised by the international cricket community in the wake of Lahore terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009 and then were dropped as World Cup co-hosts. The banning of their three cricketers — Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer — on charges of spot-fixing last year further plunged Pakistan cricket into a deeper crisis.
“The World Cup matters a lot for us. By winning it we can bring back international cricket to Pakistan,” said Afridi on the eve of the match.
Afridi is still keeping his cards close to his chest. He would not reveal whether he is thinking of playing Shoaib Akhtar Wednesday so that he could renew his rivalry with Tendulkar one last time.
“Shoaib is not 100 per cent fit. But he is trying his best. We will take a decision on his inclusion this evening,” said Afridi.
Pakistan, however, have enough firepower in their attack to trouble the famed Indian batting. Fast bowler Umar Gul has led the pace attack with distinction. With the Mohali wicket known to aid fast bowlers, Gul could be the bowler to watch out for.
But it will be Afridi’s leg-spin that needs careful watching. With offie Mohammad Hafeez and left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman, Afridi will form a formidable trio of spinners. He may not think of playing a third spinner, Saeed Ajmal, like he did against the West Indies.
An India-Pakistan clash has always transcended beyond sport and the team that keeps its emotions under control will prevail. It is easier said than done as when the whole world will get to witness a battle between two greats — Tendulkar and Akhtar. That is assuming Afridi has the courage to take the bold step.
India: M.S. Dhoni (captain/wicketkeeper), Virender Sehwag, Ravichandran Ashwin, Piyush Chawla, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Virat Kohli, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, Yusuf Pathan, Suresh Raina, S.Sreesanth, Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh.
Pakistan: Shahid Afridi (captain), Misbah-ul-Haq, Abdul Razzaq, Abdur Rehman, Ahmed Shehzad, Asad Shafiq Junaid Khan, Kamran Akmal (wicketkeeper), Mohammad Hafeez, Saeed Ajmal, Shoaib Akhtar, Umar Akmal, Umar Gul, Wahab Riaz, Younis Khan.
Umpires: Simon Taufel (Australia) and Ian Gould (England)
Third umpire: Billy Bowden (New Zealand)
Match Referee: Ranjan Madugalle (Sri Lanka)