MOHALI: It’s the biggest match of the World Cup, not because it’s the semi-final, but because archrivals India and Pakistan are playing it.
While both teams are under pressure, Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi, like all other countrymen, insists more of it will be on the home team after the national anthems are sung.
“We’re not the favourites,” said Afridi. “India are the favourites. We are very confident and we are enjoying our cricket.”
And won’t he enjoy it. The all-rounder is the leading wicket-taker of the tournament and has led the side to six wins including ending Australia’s unbeaten run in World Cup matches.
Shoaib likely to miss out Fast-bowler Shoaib Akhtar, who announced his retirement from international cricket earlier in the tournament, remains doubtful for the semi-final clash.
Akhtar failed to impress the team management during training and, barring last-minute change of hearts, will continue to be sidelined.
Diplomatic ties Encounters between the Asian rivals represent cricket’s most passionate contests. This one has been especially hyped after India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used it as a springboard for diplomatic talks by inviting Pakistan counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani.
Relations between the nuclear powers have been even more tense than normal since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, with Delhi blaming Pakistan-based extremists for the incident.
Political pressure upon the Pakistan team was increased yet further when Interior Minister Rehman Malik warned the side not to ‘fix’ the match.
This is a particularly sensitive point for the Pakistan side, who saw fast-bowlers Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, as well as former Test captain Salman Butt banned for their roles in last year’s ‘spot-fixing’ betting scandal.
Our bowlers vs their batsmen
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. But Afridi, who had already stated that the Indian legend will have to wait for the landmark, said, “I know my team is very balanced. We’ve got some good experienced players, with youngsters, and our bowlers are doing a great job.”
Dhoni unperturbed with form
Dhoni insists his own form is not a concern. The captain has a reputation as a hard-hitting batsman. But has scored just 125 runs from seven innings in the World Cup.
“It’s a cricketing aspect,” said Dhoni. “I’ve been batting well, some of the situations have not been good for really playing flamboyant cricket. What is important is when you are batting at five, six or seven, if the top order scores well, it does not give much opportunity to the lower order.”
Pakistan’s weapon Umar Gul
He has so far won just one man-of-the-match award but has been Pakistan’s premier weapon in their World Cup campaign. He is expected to have a huge impact again when they take on India due to his ability to consistently provide crucial breakthroughs. Gul’s 14 wickets in seven matches are a testament to his success of overcoming unfriendly conditions – low, slow tracks – with clever variations in pace. His better performances, where he has bagged three wickets in each game, have come against top countries: Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. After being trusted with the new ball, Gul will be man to watch out for.
India’s backbone Zaheer Khan
It’s not a stretch to say that India’s bowling has not performed up to the mark so far. So much so, that part-time spinner Yuvraj Singh has been the saviour on many occasions. But if there is one man, who has led the attack and given India hope under pressure, it is Zaheer Khan. His ability to reverse-swing the ball has surprised even the best, as was seen during the tied game against England in Bangalore last month when he removed well-set Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell. The second-highest wicket-taker in the tournament will look to continue providing the backbone to his team’s strong batting.
Feb 23, Hambantota Pakistan 317-7 v Kenya 112 Pakistan won by 205 runs
Feb 26, Colombo Pakistan 277-7 v Sri Lanka 266-9 Pakistan won by 11 runs
Mar 3, Colombo Pakistan 184 v Canada 138 Pakistan won by 46 runs
Mar 8, Pallekele New Zealand 302-7 v Pakistan 192 New Zealand won by 110 runs
Mar 19, Colombo Australia 176 v Pakistan 178-6 Pakistan won by four wickets
Mar 14, Pallekele Zimbabwe 151-7 v Pakistan 164-3 Pakistan won by seven wickets
Mar 23, Dhaka West Indies 112 v Pakistan 113-0 Pakistan won by 10 wickets
Feb 19, Dhaka India 370-4 v Bangladesh 283-9 India won by 87 runs
Feb 27, Bangalore India 338 v England 338-8 Match tied
March 6, Bangalore Ireland 207 v India 210-5 India won by five wickets
March 9, New Delhi Netherlands 189 v India 191-5 India won by five wickets
March 12, Nagpur India 296 v South Africa 300-7 South Africa won by three wickets
March 20, Chennai India 268 v West Indies 188 India won by 80 runs
March 24, Ahmedabad Australia 260-6 v India 261-5 India won by five wickets