Nothing gives you the frisson of excitement quite like the India-Pakistan clash in a World Cup. It is that kind of day when you slip on your old Blue India T-shirt emblazoned with the BCCI and Team India logos. You may have to rummage through to the back of the wardrobe to pull out the shirt. You may struggle to get into if you have put on weight in the last four years. It’s still worth the effort for this great sporting day comes only once in four years, if you discount the days that come in between in the shortest format of T20 Worlds.
There is nothing quite like the medium format of 50 overs for the expression of all-round cricketing skills over a reasonable length of time. And India-Pakistan meetings at World Cups have given us the pleasantest of memories for the simple reason that we have won every time. There have been matches in the highly emotionally charged atmosphere of Sharjah where the spectators are about 50:50 between Indians and Pakistanis, the proportion varying with the season depending on which of the two subcontinental giants was performing better.
In Manchester, the audience may be 65:35 in favour of Indians, reflecting the greater economic clout of Indians in Britain, NRIs and PIOs from the diaspora and visitors from India who will all be at Old Trafford today. The atmosphere will be electric even though there will only be about 26,000 spectators at the ground, all winners of tickets through a lottery after eight lakh people applied for them.
For all the cursing of the weather over England, there is good news ahead with Accuweather forecasting - “Mostly cloudy, spotty showers and a high of 17 C.” It is not certain Shoaib Akhtar saw this as he put up a funny meme ahead of the match on the rival captains swimming in the water with a shark in the background. If there is a meme of the match, he would probably get the prize.
The match is Team India’s to lose. They are the clear favourites. They also carry the weight of history as India has won all six matches against Pakistan in the World Cup, a weighty piece of statistics indeed. But there are warning signs as they have to watch out for “The other” Pakistan team to turn up like the one that played England in the World Cup, scored 350+ and held the hosts off. “The other”Pakistan had also turned up in the Champions Trophy final in 2017 when India was expected to romp home.
A few overs of looseness with the new ball and the Pakistani openers had taken the game away from the Indians, leading to a national disappointment then as India were the overwhelming favourites. Having given away far too many, Team India were way behind in the chase. This was a cruel cricketing lesson and a very recent one at that. The chilly aftermath was felt right up to the top echelons in India, in Parliament and in the PMO as the final slipped from India’s grasp. Fortunately, the calls for banning Pakistan from the World Cup for Pulwama terror and for India to boycott the match have all receded into the background post-polls.
On the cricketing front, seeing the revival of the innings by the Pakistani tail enders in the chase against Australia after the specialist batsmen were back in the hut, it is obvious that Team India can take nothing for granted. Every phase of the 100-overs match must be made to count and any wet weather and conditions would also have to be factored in. Kohli was criticised for putting Pakistan in at the CT final but he had done so in the earlier league game and proved successful.
The toss will have a greater bearing if the weather is to intervene, besides factors like life in the rich and conditions for bowlers in the early start. But in a contest that often appears only marginally less important than life and death itself, such factors are minor. The drama is everything even as the peace-keeping forces of the local police keep law & order among rival fans. The Manchester police did a fine job in 1999 when they kept the evictions to the minimum as they kept the peace in the stands.
For all the history of disagreements between the two nations, the only protest in the ground actually came in the first meeting in Sydney in 1992 when a few orange turbaned youth from the International Sikh Youth Federation went around pressing their demand for a homeland by supporting Pakistan. Most people were too engrossed in the action to pay any attention to them.
In the last World Cup meeting in Adelaide, Virat Kohli stole the thunder with a century and a stand with Suresh Raina that gave India a defendable total, which only Misbah-ul-Haq tried to defy as he played a lone hand. The meeting in the World Cup before that, the presence of the military, ack ack guns and fly-by aerial reconnaissance in Mohali were in consonance with the mood of a testy contest in which Pakistan, probably rendered nervous by the Indian visit, dropped Tendulkar so many times it appeared they were also keen on giving the World Cup to India’s favourite cricketing son.
India have beaten every team in the World Cup and probably lost to them too, but they have kept this great record for 27 years since Sydney when 10,330 people watched the game in which a young Sachin Tendulkar was adjudged the man of the match.