Is it possible to overstate the importance of an India-Pakistan World Cup semifinal? Yes, I think so.
As Yuvraj and Raina took India home against Australia on Thursday, Ravi Shastri, voice trembling, noted that if India won it, they would set up ‘the mother of all games‘. Not for the first time, he was merely stating the obvious. But was the cliche still true?* Everyone certainly swallowed it whole, including yours truly, and the hype has been unrelenting ever since the mere possibility of this game emerged when Pakistan beat Australia. I called up a friend in Pakistan yesterday,someone I haven’t talked to in months,and practically the first thing she said was ‘So who do you think will win?’ This, by the way, is someone who has never before expressed any interest in sport whatsoever, except for appreciating the legs of some footballers.
To carry on in Shastri-esque vein, the build-up has been incredible. It is easily the biggest game of the tournament, and most fans wouldn’t mind if their respective team won this game but lost in the final. Any player who stands out in this game – for a poor performance as much as for a great one – will make a permanent stamp in the memory of the fans. Not for nothing are the heads of state also attending the game. Both Pakistani and Indian fans have been reliving, with thoughts of revenge and satisfaction respectively, the last two do-or-die games these two nations played in the World Cup – 1996 and 2003.
2011, however, is neither 1996 nor 2003. The 1996 game was a World Cup quarterfinal as Pakistan defended their title, and it was the first game played outside of a neutral venue in seven long years (between Lahore ’89 and Bangalore ’96,there were 9 games played, 7 of those in Sharjah). The 2003 gap was shorter – only four years had passed since India and Pakistan met in Dhaka and then at Centurion. Since then, however, a surfeit of ‘Dosti’ series has diluted the charm of an India Pakistan encounter. In 2003, Sachin reportedly could not sleep for nights on end. In 2010, he was doing exactly that – ‘rested’ for the Asia Cup.
Admittedly, the two teams haven’t played a lot recently – just three games since 2008 – but from March 2004 to July 2008, there were 31 games played. The first of these, the Karachi ODI, lived up to all of its hype as India visited Pakistan for the first time in years- runs, drama, a stadium roaring its head off. In the last, also at Karachi, a successful Pakistani chase of 300+ was applauded by relatively empty stands and a decidedly ‘meh’ sentiment from the media.
This is not to suggest that this rivalry has been artificial – only that the ‘war minus the shooting’ moniker falls a little flat in the face of repeated encounters and the absence of strong nationalist sentiment off the field (even though it has been revived somewhat since the Mumbai attacks in 2008). Pakistan’s tour of India in 2007 was denounced, appropriately, by Sambit Bal as a case of ‘flat pitches, flatter series‘. Even more damningly, Samiuddin observed in the preview:
The hype, the hope, the headlines, the dosti, the very essence of it, seems somehow reduced this time: the novelty has worn. This is the fourth series since 2003-04 and maybe, just maybe, it should be preserved with greater care and not overdone for the dollar. It is good, for it suggests that the two now treat each other as normal opponents.
Indeed, that seems to be the attitude of the Pakistan camp at present, with Hafeez stressing the ‘one game at a time’ mentality while accepting his MOTM award in the quarterfinal, in keeping with the current team management’s long-apparent goal of reducing pressure on the team. Intikhab Alam has also asked for the hysteria to be toned down, and even the choice of spokesperson is telling – any similar statement by Afridi would have reverbrated throughout the subcontinent, but Alam? Alam who?
The Indian management, on the other hand, must be working overtime to insulate the team from pressure** – there is no shortage of nerves in the camp, as the win against Australia demonstrated. The mental battle will probably decide the cricketing ones on Wednesday, as it has done so often for both Australia and South Africa over the years.
the best team Pakistan win.
*This may seem blasphemous,especially in the light of Masuud and Ahmer’s post on ClearCricket: Prescribed Etiquettes and Attitudes for the Greatest Match Ever.
**Imran Khan, too, has noted that the pressure of performing in front of home fans will work in Pakistan’s favor.