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Why India Has The Upper Hand In The Sunday Contest With Pakistan

14/02/2015 7:27 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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India's Umesh Yadav, third right, is congratulated by team after bowling England's Alex Hales caught Ajinkya Rahane for 4 runs during the fifth One Day International match between England and India at Headingley cricket ground, Leeds, England, Friday, Sept 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

When I interviewed Sachin Tendulkar once in the late 1990s in Sharjah on the eve of a match against Pakistan, he told me how he had been sleepless all of the previous night. He was shadow practicing how he would play the Pakistan bowlers, especially Wasim Akram, the next day.

Recently, while doing commentary with him, I mentioned this to Akram. "Well, he could have come to my room," said the brilliant former left-arm fast bowler with a smile. "I was awake too, trying to work out ways and means of getting Tendulkar out.''

If legendary players like Tendulkar and Akram can get consumed by tension and lose their sleep when the two countries play each other, imagine the state of mind of lesser cricketers. In the context of the World Cup, the tension only gets multiplied manifold.

In some ways this would be true of fans either side of the border. Diehards argue that this is the title fight itself and nothing else matters. That is, of course, being euphemistic, but there is no doubt that this is the blue riband match of the tournament, cricket's greatest rivalry.

More than a billion people will be tuned in to the action in Adelaide on Sunday and roads in Pakistan and India will be empty of traffic for the seven hours that the teams square up against each other, following the action on their TV sets, on radio, on their smartphones, or elsewhere.

The emotional pitch of an India-Pakistan cricket match is extraordinarily high for reasons that go way beyond the contest between bat and ball. The geo-socio-political history of the sub-continent gives it several other dimensions that refuse to be restricted to sport.

And yet, all told, it is sport. It is a match which will be won by the side which plays better on the day, leaving the other to lick its wounds for the next four years.

So how do the two teams square up for Sunday's clash?

From a historical perspective, India would appear to have the edge. In five previous matches in the World Cup, they've won all. This is an admirable record, which must be tempered by the fact that the World Cup comes every four years. This is a long period of time in which team dynamics and form can change substantially.

For instance, Pakistan might point out that when the last bilateral series in 2012-13 was played, they won 3-2 in a close finish. Equally, India will point to their win in the Champions Trophy in England in 2013.

The ICC rankings and bookmakers also rate India higher. But then again, Pakistan will justifiably refer to the lead-in form into the World Cup. Barring a pyrrhic win over lowly Afghanistan in a warm-up game, India have little to show for the four months they've spent in Australia. Pakistan, on the other hand, have done well in both the warm-up matches they played.

Those who follow teams diligently also highlight the fact that India's core team has stayed the same for over two years, which means the players have had ample time to understand each other and jell well. On the other hand, as historians will remind, while the Pakistanis may have had serious setbacks in team selection, they consistently throw up exciting young talent who can win matches off their own brilliance.

Interestingly, the approach of the two teams has been dramatically different for this tournament. While India have plumped for youth this time (the average age of the side is 26 or thereabouts), Pakistan have vested their faith essentially in the senior brigade of Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq and Shahid Afridi, with a clutch of young players in the supporting cast.

On paper, India have the stronger batting side and Pakistan--despite losing Saeed Ajmal, Umar Gul, Junaid Khan and Mohammed Hafeez--are still reckoned to be stronger in the bowling department.

This subscribes to the stereotype of cricketers from the two countries. Yet, past records from the World Cup show that India's bowlers have put up strong performances against Pakistan.

Essentially, academic assessments become irrelevant in an India-Pakistan match or have curency only in hindsight. It may have no bearing on the actual play at all.

I recall once Imran Khan telling me that this contest is so unique that the "The past does not matter too much, nor does reputation or current form necessarily."

"Players come up with heroic performances unexpectedly in tight situations because they are inspired, or can flop badly if they lose their nerve," he said. "Cricketing ability is important no doubt, but even more important is mental strength."

The story of Sunday's match result will revolve around which players and which team meets the challenges successfully in the mind before taking the field.

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