Semi-final Preview: India takes on Pakistan in final before the final

Sachin Tendulkar prepares ahead of India’s semi-final clash with Pakistan

By Jamie Alter

Mohali: Mar 30, 2011

Wednesday s semi-final in Mohali is perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated World Cup match ever. The only way it could have been tastier and more electrifying were if this match was the final and the venue was Eden Gardens. But that s a dream for another day.

The ICC has gotten the semi-final it wanted. The scramble for tickets, ever since it became clear that these two teams would be facing off, has been insane. India s Prime Minister will be in attendance. Dr Manmohan Singh has invited his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani and former Pakistan president General Parvez Musharraf and a host of dignitaries as a part of cricket diplomacy. Bollywood stars will be there to add in the glam quotient and Mohali is the place to be on March 30.

As the nation s journalists go berserk trying to whip up the sense of occasion, the most common question being asked is ‘who will handle the pressure better? Mahendra Singh Dhoni s answer, pat, was: “The World Cup is being held in the subcontinent, and India and Pakistan are playing in the semi-finals. It does not get better. The pressure will be big, but in reality it makes no difference to us. It will be just a game. The Indian cricket team has always been under pressure and we have handled it well.”

Such assurance is not misplaced. Dhoni is not one for stats and history, so he will not even blink if you tell him that Pakistan have won 69 of the 119 matches played with India, or that that in India, they have 17 wins in 26 matches. His team has reached this far, deservedly, and each member will know that no matter how frayed the nerves, the match will be won by bat and ball. India has the team to beat anyone, as they have shown in the past two years. This isn t the old choking side of the late 90s and early 2000s when final after final was lost. This is a steely, extremely motivated side which has blossomed under the cool coaching of Gary Kirsten and the nerveless leadership of Dhoni.

In 2003, before India met Pakistan in Centurion, Sachin Tendulkar revealed how he had been made to answer questions about March 1, a year before it rolled around, and how he had not slept well for 12 days leading into game day. This time around he hasn t even had a week to fathom the contest ahead, but with the form he s in, you can expect Tendulkar to bring 21 years of international experience to the table. Pakistan knows what he can do ask any Pakistani about that Centurion epic and have plenty of reason to worry.

Under Shahid Afridi the best man to lead this team Pakistan have played attractive, aggressive cricket to reach the semi-finals. Coming in to the World Cup their ability was questioned. They didn t have a leader until ten days before the tournament began. They were dogged by the match-fixing controversy and had lost two exceptional fast bowlers and their Test captain. Yet here they are, having beaten Sri Lanka and Australia. Having thrilled all tournament. Having earned the right to be in the semi-finals.

Afridi is the highest wicket-taker of the tournament. Umar Gul has been outstanding with the new ball in a role he was astoundingly questioned in. Umar Akmal has two Man-of-the-Match awards. Mohammad Hafeez has picked himself up after a disastrous start. Asad Shafiq is curbing his enthusiasm and producing mature innings. Kamran Akmal is holding catches. Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman are barging against each other for a place in the final XI, such is Pakistan s stock of nagging spinners. This is some team.

However, one doubt lingers. Pakistan s array of spin bowlers has carried them this far. But India owns the best batting line-up in the world, and play spin very, very well. So what will it take to blow them down? Gul needs support, and neither Wahab Riaz nor Shahid Afridi nor Abdul Razzaq has provided it. Forget the batting Powerplay; Pakistan needs to make inroads at the top to be able to assert any pressure. But do they have the firepower to get rid of Virender Sehwag, Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Dhoni and Suresh Raina? Sehwag and Gambhir and Kohli aren t going to give Pakistan s spin the respect some of the other teams have, so Afridi will have to have tricks up his sleeve.

For Pakistan, this is the closest they ve been able to play to home after they were ostracised by the international cricket community in the wake of the Lahore terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009 and after being dropped as World Cup co-hosts. Though they have yet to beat India in a World Cup fixture, Pakistan can draw inspiration from their last match against India when they hauled down a target of 322 with one ball to spare in 2007. India s bowling has lacked conviction, with the exception of Zaheer Khan. So Pakistan will need to offset either him or Ravichandran Ashwin at the start to exert pressure on the other bowlers.

There is so much subtext to an India vs Pakistan duel, and Wednesday promises to be an exciting day. Don t miss it for anything.

Teams:

India (Probable): Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt&wk), Suresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel/Ashish Nehra.

Pakistan (Probable): Mohammad Hafeez, Kamran Akmal (wk), Asad Shafiq, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq, Umar Akmal, Shahid Afridi (capt), Abdul Razzaq, Saeed Ajmal, Umar Gul, Shoaib Akhtar/Wahab Riaz.

Umpires: Simon Taufel (Australia) and Ian Gould (England)

Time: 14.30 local (09.00 GMT)

(Jamie Alter is a freelance cricket writer, having worked at ESPNcricinfo and All Sports Magazine. His first book, The History of World Cup Cricket, is out now. His twitter feed is @jamie_alter)

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