India vs Pakistan: a World Cup contest rich in romance, politics
In the background are simmering disputes over choice of venues, and an agonising wait for Indian visas by Pakistani media and fans
All roads, excuse the cliché, will lead to the cavernous Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on Saturday. No matter that India and Pakistan clashed twice in the 50-over Asia Cup only last month. A World Cup contest has its own romance — and politics.
Take the 2011 semi-final in Mohali — the last time India hosted the showpiece in the 50-over format which Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men won — as a case in point. History tells you how this contest, easily the most riveting one in the sport, has been used by politicians and statesmen in the garb of cricket diplomacy.
It was a contest poised on a knife’s edge, attended by Yousuf Raza Gilani, erstwhile Prime Minister of Pakistan, at the invitation of his counterpart Dr Manmohan Singh. India won a close game alright to set up a final with Sri Lanka but to political analysts, it was seen as the beginning of a potential thaw in the frosty relationship between the two nations after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai of 2008.
Once again, however, the bilateral cricketing relationship, barring a short tour by Pakistan for an ODI series in 2013, has been on hold over the last decade thanks to the stormy relationship between the two neighbours, so much so that the topic has hardly been raised in recent years.
This time, Zaka Ashraf, chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and his entourage, will be guests of honour and there will be plenty of smiles and handshakes all around. In the background, however, are simmering disputes over choice of venues, and an agonising wait for Indian visas by Pakistani media and fans.
The redeeming feature is that Pakistan skipper Babar Azam & Co. have looked quite comfortable with the warm reception they have received in two of the cities they have landed in so far — Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. It’s not exactly a secret that the PCB had reservations about playing in Ahmedabad and Mumbai and insisted on playing most of their matches in Chennai and Kolkata owing to threat perceptions about their security.
However, hosts Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) insisted on staging what’s being called the mother of all battles in Ahmedabad, as it will be the perfect opportunity for BCCI secretary Jay Shah and his team to showcase the ‘largest cricket stadium’ in the world.
If there was criticism all around for the World Cup opening to a lukewarm response last week with the match between defending champions England and New Zealand, the venue is expected to more than make up for it on Saturday.
Tickets are all ‘sold out’ as BookmyShow says, so are hotels of all star ratings and accommodation of all kind, while TV pundit Ravi Shastri said on air during the India-Afghanistan game that even hospital beds have been booked for short stays in Ahmedabad. There is an enormous premium on flight tickets while the Indian Railways has announced additional trains for fans to make it to the game.
Hype of this magnitude certainly adds to the pressure on both sides, though it will not be an exaggeration to say that hosts India enjoy a slight edge in terms of history and experience. The men in blue enjoy a 7-0 head-to-head record in 50-over World Cup clashes, a sequence which began in 1992 in Melbourne and continued until 2019 in Manchester.
The Ahmedabad venue, like most of the ones so far with the exception of Chennai, is expected to be a batters’ paradise. The toss is thus crucial and it’s always better to have runs on the board rather than overthinking in a needle game such as this.
A wait overnight and we will know how it pans out!
ICC World Cup 2023
14 October 2023, India vs Pakistan
Venue: Narendra Modi Stadium
Start: 2.00 pm IST