Any match involving India and Pakistan is invested with a gladiatorial air.
Defining moments such as Javed Miandad's six at Sharjah or Sachin Tendulkar's upper cut off Shoaib Akhtar in the 2003 World Cup, the shrill voices that whisper on television “it is more than just a game” and the expectations of fans on either side of the Wagah border all add to the mystique.
It is no different this time too as the sub-continental rivals gear up for a vital clash in the Asia Cup at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium here on Sunday. The last time the teams faced off was in the World Cup semifinal at Mohali with its undercurrents of cricket diplomacy.
The match proved to be another tense addition to the willow game's Indo-Pak chapter. The Men in Blue won by 29 runs and kept their date with delight at Mumbai on April 2.
Cut to the present, there is no reduction in the layers of pressure that envelops an Indian team ahead of a match against Pakistan. The shocking five-wicket loss to Bangladesh has only made it worse for the strained shoulders of M.S. Dhoni's men.
India has to defeat Pakistan to stay alive. Having nailed two games in a row, Pakistan is almost there. If it wins, the berth in the summit clash would be set in stone and India will have to hope for Sri Lanka to defeat Bangladesh and rely on various permutations in the points table.
It is a situation that could have been avoided, but India's batting dominance, that shines brightest in these familiar conditions, failed to mask its bowling inadequacies.
Last year at Mohali, Zaheer Khan (5.89), Ashish Nehra (3.3) and Munaf Patel (4) had decent economy rates and also collectively bagged six wickets against Pakistan.
Dhoni may be willing to give an arm for statistics like that, because against Bangladesh Praveen Kumar (5.6), Irfan Pathan (6.77) and Ashoke Dinda (7.12) struggled and managed just three wickets.
Praveen bagged those scalps but he was equally guilty of lacking ideas at the death.
The batting has been in fine fettle but Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja's lack of adequate time in the middle can become critical if Pakistan's strong bowling line-up, helmed by Umar Gul and Saeed Ajmal, inflict a few cracks.
Pakistan's batting is slowly warming up, but Younis Khan's poor form — he has scored 15, 5, 12 and 2 in his last four games — should worry coach Dav Whatmore.
Busting the hype
In the lead-up, the players from the two camps, have tried their best to bust the hype around ‘the game.' Gul, hands on hips, eyes narrowed, said: “I am just focusing on doing well for my team. When it is a match between India and Pakistan, we treat it as just another game but yes there is pressure from the public in both countries.”
His skipper Misbah-ul-Haq added: “You just have to give your 100 per cent in batting, bowling and fielding and don't get obsessed with the result. Players also have an opportunity to make an impression. You get noticed when you do well in a match between India and Pakistan.”
Sachin Tendulkar too was not spared the inquisition while he struggled to sum up his emotions after the 100th century became a huge footnote amidst Bangladesh's stirring comeback.
“It is an important game,” he said, well aware that India is at its tipping point in the Asia Cup.
A mild drizzle on Saturday night added to the drama, though the weather forecast for Sunday states it will be ‘mostly sunny.'
The teams (from):
India: M.S. Dhoni (captain), Virat Kohli (vice-captain), Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Manoj Tiwary, Ravindra Jadeja, R. Ashwin, Praveen Kumar, Vinay Kumar, Rahul Sharma, Yusuf Pathan, Irfan Pathan and Ashoke Dinda. Coach: Duncan Fletcher.
Pakistan: Misbah-ul-Haq (captain), Mohammad Hafeez, Nasir Jamshed, Younis Khan, Umar Akmal, Hammad Azam, Asad Shafiq, Shahid Afridi, Azhar Ali, Sarfraz Ahmed, Saeed Ajmal, Abdul Rehman, Umar Gul, Aizaz Cheema and Wahab Riaz. Coach: Dav Whatmore.
Umpires: Steve Davis and Ian Gould; Third umpire: Sharfuddoula; Match referee: David Boon.
Match starts at 1.30 p.m. IST.
Keywords: Asia Cup