Mercurial outsiders v solid favourites
The Big Picture
Beyond the hype this contest can perhaps be best viewed through the prism of the two captains. Shahid Afridi is the passionate, exhibitionist leader who doesn’t mind showing his emotions on the field. He will shout, cajole, plead, laugh, roar and feel every pulsating moment of the contest. It’s exactly what this Pakistan team needs after all those controversies, someone who can remind them of the school-boyish joy that this game can provide.
MS Dhoni is the uber-cool captain and, while he can be vocal while dealing with the press, he is almost invisible on the field. Silent nods of appreciation, a quiet word in the ear, calm instructions, a shrug of the shoulder is all you will get from him. And again, it’s what this star-heavy team needs. Someone who can be calm and remind them of the basics of the game.
Pakistan – who told their players they could be here in the semi-finals? – almost renews itself with each crisis. That’s how it has been always: Controversies. Paralysis. Rebirth. Success. And more controversies. This was a big tournament for the survival of Misbah-ul-Haq, in the middle of a great comeback. In a sense, the spot-fixing saga and its sordid aftermath was actually a blessing in disguise since it paved the way for his return. For Younis Khan, too, survival instinct, as a batsman facing a dip in form before the tournament, would have helped in dealing with that crisis. Playing his last tournament, Shoaib Akhtar knew this was the time to let his game do the talking. And for that man Afridi, mentally almost perennially young, this was the best chance to dazzle on the biggest stage. He has taken that chance and led the team with great passion. Kamran Akmal lives and breathes in amnesia. Bad memories don’t haunt him – who else could have recovered so well after that nightmarish effort against New Zealand?
And yet nothing much has changed with the way they play cricket on the field. It’s still the bowlers who win the games for them. For all that is mercurial about them, Pakistan have lost just one game in this tournament.
India have occasionally limped, at times choked, sometimes dazzled, before beating Australia to reach to the semi-finals. The progress card has the bowlers in the red, the batsmen guilty of not finishing the job, and the fielding has always been almost beyond redemption. Their mode of progress should actually have freed them up in some ways. The batsmen must have realised that they can’t try too hard to cover up for their bowlers’ weakness, by trying to pile on too much, with the batting Powerplay pulling the rug from under their feet a few times. The bowlers showed they are learning from the serial hiding by putting up a pretty disciplined effort against Australia. In some ways, the pressure must be off them, as not many would be surprised if they leak 300 runs.
It’s the batting India depend on. Is there any chink in it barring those Powerplay debacles? Gautam Gambhir hasn’t been at his personal best – were he playing at his optimum, he would have rendered Virat Kohli superfluous at No. 4. Yet Gambhir’s slightly iffy form has made Kohli vital in that middle order. Prior to the tournament, it was felt that Kohli would be a misfit in the lower order, where Suresh Raina and Yusuf Pathan would be more dangerous, and that he might be wasted even further up. But Gambhir hasn’t been at his fluent best and India have turned to Kohli to take them through the middle overs. Gambhir has always raised his game against Pakistan and his form will be crucial on Wednesday as it would then give the middle order the licence to attack
Watch out for…
Virender Sehwag In the past few games Sehwag has – curiously, for a batsman so wonderfully innovative as him – tried to hit every spinner through the off side. He would back away and try to drive, slice or cut and has fallen a few times in the process. Pakistan might well have a spinner bowling at him early and it will be fascinating to see whether Sehwag will retain that off-side bias or be more inclusive, and open, in his approach.
Umar Gul’s yorkers: After Lasith Malinga, Gul has probably the best control over the yorker in world cricket today. There have of course been days when the radar has been awry but more often than not he has got them right. The Indian lower middle order will be fully tested by the yorkers, slower ones and the bouncers that he loves to bowl.
Sachin Tendulkar v Abdul Razzaq: Bowlers like Hansie Cronje and Razzaq, more than the Umar Guls and the Shoaib Akhtars, have been reasonably successful against Tendulkar. Cronje used to tease Tendulkar with deliveries shaping away from a length outside off while Razzaq specialises in the opposite: he slides the ball back in, looking for that lbw. He hasn’t always had success, but it will be a mini-battle worth watching. Will Tendulkar opt for all-out attack or will he bat with relative care against Razzaq?
Zaheer Khan v Kamran Akmal: Kamran loves to square drive and Zaheer has been able to bend the ball back in to the right-hand batsmen this tournament with the new ball. This contest should be fun.
Umar Akmal v spin: India will rely a lot on the slow bowlers during the middle overs, and Umar is the middle-order batsman who loves to attack spin. He has laid into the likes of Daniel Vettori on the tour of New Zealand and is always itching to cut and slog-sweep.
The signs are that Ashish Nehra is likely to replace Munaf Patel. Even Yusuf Pathan has been sweating it out in the nets raising speculations that he might push R Ashwin hard for a spot in the team. Ashwin has been really good in the games he has played and has added some teeth to the attack while the nature of the patta track has made India think about bringing in Yusuf.
India (probable): 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Sachin Tendulkar, 3 Gautam Gambhir, 4 Virat Kohli, 5 Yuvraj Singh, 6 MS Dhoni (capt & wk), 7 Suresh Raina, 8 Yusuf Pathan / R Ashwin, 9 Harbhajan Singh, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Ashish Nehra
Pakistan are thinking of playing three seamers. The choice of the third seamer is between Shoaib and Wahab Riaz. Afridi said Shoaib wasn’t 100% fit today but a decision will be taken on the evening preceding the match.
Pakistan (probable) 1 Kamran Akmal (wk), 2 Mohammad Hafeez, 3 Asad Shafiq, 4 Younis Khan, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq, 6 Umar Akmal, 7 Shahid Afridi (capt), 8 Abdul Razzaq, 9 Saeed Ajmal / Abdur Rehman, 10 Umar Gul, 11 Wahab Riaz / Shoaib Akhtar.
Try picking the XIs for tomorrow’s game by playing Team Selector.
Pitch and conditions
It’s a batting pitch but what’s eating up everyone is the dew factor. Read here for a report on the pitch.
Heavy storms, lightning and rain lashed Chandigarh late on Tuesday evening, immediately adding a light shroud of doubt over the game. For the whole day there were no signs, not even a hint of rain playing a spoil-sport but around 9PM, there were rumbling sounds of thunder accompanied by high-speed winds. The velocity of the winds were so strong that the heavy iron barricades manning the team hotel were blown away.
The weather forecast for Wednesday suggests sunshine during the day with minimal chance of heavy rain. Punjab Cricket Association officials said that they had studied the forecasts for the period ending March 31 and there was “zero precipitation” expected. In simple terms, there were no strong rains expected on the day of the match.
Stats and trivia
Afridi is the first bowler in World Cup history to take four wickets in a match on four different occasions in a tournament.
MS Dhoni is the only wicket-keeper captain who has played in 100 ODIs.
Zaheer Khan is the second Indian bowler after Javagal Srinath (44 wickets) to take more than 40 wickets in World Cups.
For more stats click here
“I feel I have been batting really well. It is just that in some situation I could not bat flamboyantly. If you bat at 5, 6 or 7, and if the top order does really well, it does not give opportunity to lower-order batsmen. The last game was an ideal game where I could have got a bit more runs which were needed at that point of time. So form has been a worry it is just that sometimes there were not many opportunities and when there was an opportunity and there were times I was not able to score in a particular game”.
Playing the pressure game
MS Dhoni and Shahid Afridi are men of instinct, who refuse to bide by convention. Both stand out for their daring attitudes but are defensive leaders. On Wednesday it is they, and not their Prime Ministers, who will be the most important men in Mohali. Their decisions will influence a match that has gained hysterical proportions.
So on the eve of the semi-final, described by some propaganda-driven television channels as a mahayudh (great war), Dhoni and Afridi were cautious, concealing their nerves behind smiles and flashes of humour.
Afridi was on time for his interaction with the media. Dhoni had arrived late, not an uncommon occurrence in the World Cup, and something the Indian management has never been able to explain. So even as Dhoni was wrapping up, Afridi was already in the room exchanging pleasantries with the Pakistan media.
Afridi is a restless man, always on the lookout for something – mostly mischief. Even before Dhoni had stood up, Afridi was next to him, smiling but looking his opposite number in the eye. He shook hands and then put his arm over Dhoni’s shoulder. The cameramen went berserk. A moment later Afridi sat down, hunched forward, in control and ready to take on the world. For the next 15 minutes Afridi answered the media’s questions with the wit of a stand-up comedian. His responses were impromptu, abrupt, in short bursts and left everyone chuckling.
Asked if Pakistan’s fast bowlers would employ the same strategy of bowling short as did the Australians in the quarterfinals, Afridi shot back: “And maar khaye unon ne (they got beaten).” Why were Pakistan not training today? “Why, you don’t like it?” Afridi responded. Someone asked whether Pakistan, a team with a young average age, could handle the pressure of a big game in front of a partisan crowd. Afridi completely misunderstood the question initially, and it was asked again. His response was off target. “Age is less? You are saying that because of me? Average age bolo na, yaar (say you meant the average age). Average actually increasing is not such a big thing. It can increase any time. This is a match to increase averages.”
Then Afridi put on his serious hat, admitting a positive result would have tremendous significance for Pakistan cricket, which had plunged into crisis after three players were indicted in a spot-fixing scandal during the England tour last year. “It is very important,” Afridi said. “This World Cup matters a lot for us because we are trying to bring cricket back home.”
Afridi said the most important thing his players needed to do was enjoy the game. He even thought Pakistan held an advantage. “The main thing is if you know how to handle the pressure, you don’t need to panic in it.
“We are enjoying our cricket because we are not the most favourite team in this competition. India is the most favourite team. We have played above our expectations. So we are very confident.”
While Afridi was at ease, Dhoni behaved as though he was walking a tightrope. The match had attracted extra attention, and will be attended by the premiers of India and Pakistan, other political heavy weights and celebrities. Was it difficult to stay immune to the hype? “It should not be affecting us really because we all know it is a big tournament and we have prepared a lot for it,” Dhoni said. “We are playing the semi-finals. The most important thing is how you prepared yourself irrespective of what is happening around you. And that is what we have been doing in the past few days.”
Wasn’t there a danger of losing focus in such a climate? “It depends on what you actually mean by hype – the hype created by the media, the sponsors. We are not getting involved and that is what is important. You need to be aware of what we are expected to do and we are expected to play good cricket on the field. All these things have been part of the Indian cricket for a long time. Of course the biggest distinguished guests will be there to see the game but they are here to enjoy cricket, which means we will have to play well and we will prepare well and see how it goes.”
Dhoni said his team was focussed and had become used to the attention. And it was not the first time the players were part of such an experience. “When you talk about hype, pressure etc., one thing is sure: whether you are thinking about it, or not thinking about it, I don’t think it really helps you perform. So what is not helping you perform needs to be kept away.”
The foreign media was more interested in whether cricket was playing the bridge in bringing two neighbours back to the mediation table after bilateral talks between India and Pakistan were fractured following the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008. Dhoni said he would prefer being a player to being a diplomat.
Neither Dhoni nor Afridi would readily admit that the pressure would be immense. Afridi acted as though he did not have a care in the world. Dhoni said the focus would remain on the match. When both walk into the din created by 28,000 fans, their nerves will face a tremendous test.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo