Perennial political rivals India and Pakistan are facing off on a Manchester cricket field on Sunday in one of the World Cup’s most hotly-anticipated and massively-watched games.
It’s the mini-title game of the World Cup group stage for more than 1 billion people in two cricket-crazed countries.
The sport British colonisers introduced to the subcontinent during the Raj, and which both India and Pakistan continued to embrace in the wake of the Partition, divides and unites the countries at the same time.
“It’s a marquee event all over the world,” India captain Virat Kohli told World Cup broadcasters. “The frenzy around it is a bit intimidating for the guys doing it for the first time, but for us it’s about being professional as always, do the basics right and look to get a result.”
Kohli never attempts to play down the significance of the contest, but he’s always at pains to assure cricket fans there’s no animosity between the players.
“We are quite ready to take that game on,” Kohli said in comments published by the BBC. “It’s an opportunity to create excitement.”
Pakistan’s Imam-ul-Haq, who scored a half-century in the team’s loss to Australia, said it’s now or never with semifinals spots at stake.
“It’s a huge pressure game — obviously Pakistan-India there’s lots of mysteries behind that,” Imam said. “But we want to focus on our strengths.
“Obviously, it’s great to be part of that Pakistan-India ... lots of Pakistan-India fans are going to be there. I’m really excited about it.
The Subcontinent watches
Sunday’s venue at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, is swamped with ex-pats, visitors and generations of people from families which migrated from the subcontinent. The television audience will be enormous.
Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur said there’d be 1.5 billion people watching on TV and he’s urging his players to embrace the occasion.
“It doesn’t get much bigger than that, more exciting,” he said, adding that he told his players that “careers could be defined by moments in the game.”
Some former players and fans had urged India to boycott the match at Old Trafford in protest of the Pulwama terror attack in which least 40 police CRPF personnel were killed in February. Pakistan-based JeM had claimed the attack.
The India-Pak game was still the first World Cup fixture to sell out - hours after tickets went on sale for the 19,000-capacity stadium - and millions more will be watching at home.
Kohli and his Pakistani counterpart Sarfaraz Ahmed have played it cool, saying the players are only focussed on the game - despite obviously being aware of the hype.
While playing down its significance, players on both sides know that for volatile fans, they can become an instant hero with a century or an overnight villain with a dropped catch.
“It’s simple – if Pakistan want to stay in the tournament, they have to bring an ‘A plus’ performance and win that game,” Pakistan pace great Waqar Younis wrote in a column.
“The match has always meant so much to both countries.”
World Cup run
India, which won its first World Cup title in England in 1983 and its second on home soil in 2011, was the last team to get started at the 2019 edition of the tournament. India opened with wins over South Africa in Southampton and defending champion Australia at the Oval in London before its game against 2015 finalist New Zealand was washed out at Nottingham.
That left both India and New Zealand unbeaten heading into the weekend, but both needing a bit of extra time in the practice nets.
Pakistan’s form has been patchy, but it’s a team that can rise to the occasion. After losing a lopsided opening game to West Indies, Sarfaraz Ahmed’s team rebounded to beat top-ranked England, the host and pre-tournament title favourite.
But they followed that up with a loss to Australia, meaning the game against India takes on even more significance. Pakistan had to share points with Sri Lanka after a group game was washed out, and needs to start accumulating quickly to have any chance of finishing in the top four and earning a spot in the playoffs.
Head to Head
India has won all six times the countries have met at the World Cup, but Pakistan has won more of their one-day international meetings overall — 73-54.
Pakistan PM Imran Khan, a former star cricketer, led the country’s team to its only World Cup title in 1992.
Pakistan caused an upset two years ago with a victory in the Champions Trophy final against its greatest rival.
India responded by comprehensively winning both head-to-head encounters at last year’s Asia Cup.
Kohli scored a century and was player of the match the last time India beat Pakistan at the World Cup, a game staged far away in the southern Australian city of Adelaide in 2015.
Crude television commercials have added to the raucous buildup to this match. An Indian one notes the unbeaten World Cup record against Pakistan and asks ‘who’s the daddy?’
A Pakistani station ran a spoof of Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian pilot captured during recent hostilities, depicting him being interrogated wearing cricket colours.
“Cringeworthy ads on both sides of the border,” tweeted tennis star Sania Mirza, who is married to Pakistan cricketer Shoaib Malik.
“It’s only cricket for God’s sake, and if you think it’s anymore than that, then get a grip or get a life!”
Diplomatic relations have been strained between the countries, and Narendra Modi excluded Imran Khan from a list of regional leaders invited to the prime minister’s swearing-in ceremony last month.
Modi had invited then-Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, for his swearing-in ceremony in 2014. But hostility between the two nations, which have fought three wars since winning independence from Britain in 1947, has not eased in the past five years.
Meanwhile, fans hope the inclement English weather, which has already wreaked havoc with the tournament, does not provide an anti-climax after so much anticipation.
(All inputs from AP and Reuters)