World Cup Semi-Final Preview: Cricket's El Classico

World Cup Semi-Final Preview: Cricket's El Classico
World Cup Semi-Final Preview: Cricket's El Classico
©REUTERS/Stringer (INDIA - Tags: SPORT CRICKET) Picture Supplied by Action Images

Let us begin with a simple question – what is the greatest rivalry in this sport? Many would point to the old classic, the Ashes, wherein Australia versus England have written history books, and then rewritten them. Others, mostly modern day fans, would point to India versus Australia that in the past one and a half decade has regaled them to no end.

In between there have been some classic encounters too. West Indies versus England or Australia were no less thrilling Test series, and they jousted well against South Africa too before that impending decline. Australia against South Africa or New Zealand brings in the crowds in huge numbers as well. Nothing though invigorates like an India-Pakistan match-up.

Perhaps this was the only good thing to come out of the sub-continental partition in 1947, if at all it can be said so. The two countries began jousting with a five-match Test series in the early 1950s before periodic lulls in their relationship made sure that sport would suffer as well.

Hostilities resumed after two decades in the seventies and through the eighties, there was much to watch, talk and write about. It has been like that ever since. Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Bishan Bedi and many others like them proved their mettle against teams from around the world. But in their heart they knew that contests against each other mattered most. It bore out on the next generation as well. Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid jousted against Wasim Akram, Saeed Anwar, Waqar Younis, Inzamam ul Haq and Saqlain Mushtaq through the 1990s and later, whenever the politicos would allow them. 2011 is but only the latest offering in this mega affair.

When such is the setting, it becomes more than just about cricket then. As one begins to ponder about this particular match, the mind goes back to the 1999 and 2003 World Cups first. In England it was about the conflict fought almost simultaneously in the mountain ranges of Kashmir while the two set of cricketers played for a place in the semis. They hadn’t stopped playing cricket just yet, but this was to be their last game in a long time. That was the inherent difference with the 2003 clash.

When the draw happened and they were slated to meet in a group clash at Centurion, people thought about that day for a year before it eventually happened. Their previous league stage meeting was in 1992 when Miandad either imitated Kiran More or a monkey. But it was last in 1996 when the two sides met in a knock-out clash, that quarterfinal in Bangalore.
Mohali perhaps is a mix of all these instances, stakes being at an all time high because of the semi-final tag.

They played a little bit too frequently in the middle of this past decade, 2007 being a zenith when they played twice in the ICC World Twenty20. Then it all stopped because of socio-political reasons again and in the end, they haven’t met on a cricket field in some time. The last was in the Asia Cup a season and a half back, and it was but a small measure of what could be an explosive game on the morrow. Of course you never need past history to make it volatile. But let us throw in some statistics for good measure. Pakistan have never beaten India in an ODI World Cup, and India have never beaten Pakistan at Mohali in an ODI. This will be their third match at this ground.

Now that the pleasantries are done with, what does this contest hold in context of the tournament? The team that finished first in Group B is facing the team that finished second in Group A. That is a mark of both the teams playing some good cricket and indeed the semi-final retaining much of its charm. It is unlike the other semi-final in Colombo where one team was an overwhelming favourite.

Here, both know the conditions well, both can play spin well and both can handle the fast bowlers with equal aplomb. In addition, both are equally poor at fielding, can run out both the opposition and their own batsmen without a blink, and both are mercurial to the very core. 

In fact that word mercurial will define which direction this match will take eventually when the last ball has been bowled. Pakistan came into this tournament with everything to win and nothing to lose. That is pretty much their state of affairs whenever a big moment comes around for them and sometimes they do rise up to the challenge, more often not.

This time they have put their hands up, and beating both Sri Lanka and Australia is but a simple reminder of that. The way West Indies were blown away in Mirpur and how they recovered from the near-debacle against Canada truly illustrate their mental strength. Of course, the match against New Zealand showed us what their ugly side can be. Which Pakistan side will turn up at Mohali then?

India have been different but not too much. Question marks galore hung over team composition and fitness in the group stages, and everyone hoped the knock-outs would be a changed story. It is except that this second stage is much shorter and rather unkind. Lose and you are out. But they won against Australia and in a fashion that has surged their confidence no less. Against South Africa at Nagpur they were in a position to lose the match and eventually did. At Ahmedabad that moment came again but they held sway. It does reflect the step-up that was desired yet has it been a big enough leap?

The identity of the second finalist at Mumbai on April 2 lies in the intersection of the answers to the two questions asked above.

Chetan Narula

© Cricket World 2011

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