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A charged-up atmosphere prevails

S. Dinakar

Pakistan-India match will be a wonderful advertisement for the game

— Photo: AFP

Gearing up: Kamran Akmal and Mohammad Hafeez spar during a training session at the PCA stadium.

Mohali: The atmosphere ahead of the India-Pakistan duel on the cricketing arena is electric. There is a sense of anticipation all around.

All the hotels are booked and the tickets sold out. This ICC World Cup semifinal travels beyond the game and cricket diplomacy will be an integral element during this clash of the titans.

There is news flowing in about fans from Pakistan travelling across the border for this much-awaited match. People-to-people contact can improve relations between the two nations.

Cricket in the sub-continent has this unique ability to break barriers and build bridges of peace. The historic tour of Pakistan in 2004 was not merely about an outstanding ODI and Test series double for India. It was a lot about the great love and affection displayed by the people of Pakistan for the Indian team.

Timeless vignette

The timeless vignette of a full house in Karachi rooting for Rahul Dravid when the Indian great was on 99 in the first ODI is fresh in memory. The sporting crowd chanted, “Rahul, Rahul.” It was a spirit-lifting moment.

The India-Pakistan semifinal of the World Cup will be fiercely fought, however, it is no war or a battle. Yes, it will be a wonderful advertisement for the game in what has so far been a gripping World Cup.

There will, of course, be no dearth of passion. The pressure to succeed could be immense and both sides would have to cope with the fear of failure on a huge stage.

India has history on its side — the side has never lost to Pakistan in the World Cup. But this lop-sided record — India has won all its four games against Pakistan — could be a motivation in itself for Shahid Afridi's men.

In the last match between the two sides in an ICC event — at Centurion in 2009 during the Champions Trophy — Pakistan prevailed over India by 54 runs.

Pro-active captain

Afridi has been a pro-active captain with inspirational qualities. Indeed, Pakistan's run in the World Cup has been remarkable for the manner in which the side has bounced back from the recent, dark days of the spot-fixing scandal that led to three of its leading cricketers being banned for varying periods by the ICC.

The mercurial Afridi has been at the heart of the revival. An impact player, he has sent down his leg-spinners with craft and precision. Afridi now is slower through the air, is getting the ball to grip and turn, and bringing his variations into play. He sets the batsmen up with his leg-breaks and consumes them with googlies and top-spinners; he has a stunning 21 wickets in this World Cup at 10.71 (economy rate 3.48).

The big-hitter has failed to fire with the willow but is he reserving his fireworks for the massive match at Mohali. In India, Afridi has been influential when he has batted up the order.

Pakistan has an edge in bowling — India scores in batting — and the side's chances could hinge on the effectiveness of Afridi and incisive pacemen Umar Gul.

The impressive Gul's swing, cut and control have fetched him 14 wickets in the competition so far at 14.50. For the batsmen, he represents a clear and present danger.

There are others too who have contributed for Pakistan. Top order batsman and off-spinner Mohammad Hafeez has pulled his weight in the side; he has 172 runs at 28.66 and seven wickets at 22.71 in the championship so far.

Speaking to the media after a typically vibrant Pakistan session at the PCA Stadium on Saturday, Hafeez said his side was not bothered by the pressures of the occasion or its poor record against India in the World Cup. “It's the performance on the given day that matters. For the last seven months, we have adopted the simple strategy of putting up our best performance on the (match) day and we do not think about the past.”

Although he admitted the Indian batting was strong, Hafeez said, “Bowling is our strength and our batsmen complement the attack. It is not all about getting big scores. The Pakistan batsmen have the ability to get the required runs.”

Hafeez dwelt on the unity in the Pakistan camp. On maestro Sachin Tendulkar, the Pakistani said, “There are no words to describe Sachin. He is at the top of the scale.”

The all-rounder declared, “We want to send out a positive message to the world that as a nation we are strong and cricket in our country is alive and kicking.”

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