MOHALI - Anyone who believes cricket is just a game is likely to have their opinion altered when India and Pakistan meet for a World Cup semi-final in the border state of Punjab on Wednesday. Fixtures between the two nations always engender huge passion amongst both sets of supporters. With the prize of a place in the World Cup final at stake, a fever-pitch mood is expected with the 30,000 capacity Punjab Cricket Assoiation (PCA) Stadium sold out days ago for the crunch clash. The match will be a clash between Pakistan's well-balanced bowling attack and India's star-studded top order, including opener Sachin Tendulkar who needs just one more century for a hundred international hundreds.
"We believe we have the strongest bowling attack in the world," said Pakistan opening batsman Mohammad Hafeez, who took the new ball with his off-spin in the quarter-final win over the West Indies. "That's the key." Pakistan's Umar Gul is arguably the best reverse-swing bowler at this tournament while Saaed Ajmal's off-spin a potent weapon. And then there is the leg-spin of Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi who is the tournament's top bowler with 21 wickets at an average of just 10.71 apiece. Meanwhile fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar, who will retire after the World Cup, waits in the wings. Akhtar has played just three games at this tournament but the suspicion remains that India's batsmen can be troubled by high-class fast bowling.
India did manage to overcome champions Australia's three-pronged pace attack in a five-wicket quarter-final win in Ahmedabad but that was on a pitch favouring spin.
Even then, India collapsed to 187 for five chasing 261 for victory, and it needed a composed 57 not out from the in-form Yuvraj Singh, now back on his home ground, to see the co-hosts to victory. Traditionally, the Mohali pitch has always offered plenty of pace and bounce and that could yet see Pakistan give Akhtar one last shot at India. "I always enjoy my bowling especially against India. I'm in my peak form. I hope that when Shoaib plays it will be very good for me," said Gul. Pakistan's ability to make early inroads into a top order featuring Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir could be decisive. "I think definitely the first three wickets are crucial, the top order.
I'm looking for these three batsmen," added Gul. India's bowlers, notably left-arm quick Zaheer Khan and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, did a good containing job against Australia. India will look for similar results in a bid to book a place in the April 2 Mumbai final against either Sri Lanka or New Zealand. The hosts were giving little away ahead of a match that has witnessed "cricket diplomacy" with Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani accepting an invitation from India counterpart Manmohan Singh to attend the game. India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni is set to be the lone home player to address the media on Tuesday.
A jovial Yuvraj, speaking after his man-of-the-match effort against Australia, said: "I'm sure whatever plans we have for Pakistan, MS will tell you at the next press conference."Pakistan, who've yet to register an individual hundred at this event, have lost all four of their World Cup matches against India but go into the semi-final buoyed by a 10-wicket mauling of West Indies in the quarter-final. But Hafeez countered: "Pakistan has not defeated India in the World Cup but in the last 12 years, Australia also had not lost a single World Cup game. But then they lost to us (by four wickets) and to India.
Officials and pitch conditions for the World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan at the PCA Stadium on Wednesday:
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Yusuf Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Piyush Chawla, Ravichandran Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, Munaf Patel
Coach: Gary Kirsten (RSA)
Pakistan: Shahid Afridi (capt), Misbah-ul-Haq, Mohammad Hafeez, Kamran Akmal, Younis Khan, Asad Shafiq, Umar Akmal, Abdul Razzaq, Abdur Rehman, Saeed Ajmal, Shoaib Akhtar, Umar Gul, Wahab Riaz, Junaid Khan, Ahmed Shahzad
Coach: Waqar Younis (PAK)
Umpires: Simon Taufel (AUS) and Ian Gould (ENG)
TV umpire: Billy Bowden (NZL)
Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle (SRI)
Match start: 09:00 GMT
Pitch conditions: Renowned
As a good batting surface, it usually also has plenty of pace and bounce for fast bowlers too.