Perennial political rivals India and Pakistan will face off on a Manchester cricket field on Sunday in one of the World Cup’s most hotly-anticipated and massively-watched games.
The nuclear-armed neighbours have gone to war three times since independence in the mid-20th century – and another conflict nearly erupted earlier this year, giving an even spicier-than-usual geopolitical backdrop to the sport.
Some former players and fans even urged India to boycott the match at Old Trafford.
But the 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.
India captain Virat 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.
“As soon as we step onto the field, its professional cricket … for us it’s just another game you need to win as a team,” Kohli said at a pre-tournament captains’ session with reporters. “Eventually it’s a game of bat and ball and that’s what you need to focus on.”
Sitting next to him, stumper Sarfaraz nodded in agreement.
Captain Sarfaraz urges Pakistan to improve fielding against India
Pakistan must improve their fielding if they are to beat India in their crunch World Cup match on Sunday, captain Sarfaraz Khan said after the team’s 41-run loss to Australia in Taunton.
Crude television commercials have added to the raucous buildup. An Indian one notes the unbeaten World Cup record against Pakistan and asks ‘who’s the daddy?’
A Pakistani station ran a spoof of an Indian pilot captured during recent hostilities, depicting him being interrogated wearing cricket colours.
“Cringeworthy ads on both sides of the border,” tweeted Indian 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!”
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.
Pakistan are the undoubted underdogs, having never beaten India at a World Cup, not even when they won the title in 1992.
Under Kohli, India have made a strong start to their quest for a third World Cup title, with a clinical victory against holders Australia. Sarfaraz’s men need a pickup after slumping to a second defeat in four matches against Australia.
“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.”
Fans hope the inclement English weather, which has already wreaked havoc with the tournament, does not provide an anti-climax after so much anticipation.
Younis expects Pakistan to recall Shadab for India clash
Former Pakistan fast bowler Waqar Younis expects his team to bring back leg-spinner Shadab Khan for Sunday’s clash against arch-rivals India in Manchester to revive their World Cup campaign.
Pakistan went with a four-pronged pace attack against Australia, relying on the part-time spin of senior all-rounders Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik.
The duo conceded 86 runs in their combined 11 overs with only one wicket as the 1992 champions lost by 41 runs in an erratic display.
“Shadab is the key man in this side and I think they will look to bring him back in against India,” former Pakistan captain Younis wrote in a column for the International Cricket Council.
“They might go for five bowlers, use four pacers and Shadab and drop someone like Shoaib Malik.”
Shadab dismissed Jason Roy and Joe Root in the thrilling victory over England but was left out against Australia who subjected Pakistan to their second loss in four matches.
India remain unbeaten after three games, including clinical wins over South Africa and Australia before their match against New Zealand was washed out on Thursday.
Pakistan have never beaten India in a World Cup match but prevailed over their neighbours in the 2017 Champions Trophy final at the Oval.
“When Pakistan play India it’s always a huge game, but their meeting on Sunday is shaping up to be more crucial than ever,” Younis, who also coached Pakistan, said.
“It’s simple – if Pakistan want to stay in the tournament, they have to bring an ‘A plus’ performance and win that game.”
Against India’s formidable batting order headlined by skipper Virat Kohli, the world’s top-ranked ODI batsman, Pakistan should gun for early wickets, said Younis.
“What I have seen in this World Cup so far is that if you don’t pick up early wickets, you’re in trouble,” said the 47-year-old, a reverse swing master in his playing days.
“The new ball is so crucial and openers are being more careful in the first 10 overs this year.”
“It was with the new ball, in both batting and bowling, that I felt Pakistan missed a trick in their entertaining defeat to Australia at Taunton,” he added.
Harbhajan warns India stars to expect sleepless nights as Pakistan looms
Harbhajan Singh has warned India’s stars to expect a sleepless night ahead of their World Cup showdown with arch rivals Pakistan on Sunday.
India legend Harbhajan knows from bitter experience just how stressful it is to take part in one of the most fierce rivalries in world sport.
Harbhajan is well aware, as the stakes even higher than usual, just how high emotions will be running on the pitch and in the stands.
The 38-year-old spinner played 17 times against Pakistan in a 236-match ODI career for India, including arguably their biggest ever match in the 2011 World Cup semi-finals on home soil in Chandigarh.
It was such a critical fixture that Harbhajan lay awake for hours tossing and turning in bed the night before the game as he visualised the furious response from the Indian public if they lost.
“The memories of that game was I couldn’t sleep the night before, even though I tried my best,” Harbhajan said.
“I was just worried about what would happen if we lost the game. There were a lot of thoughts coming into my mind.
“People get angry and they can do anything. In the 2003 World Cup we didn’t play one game as well as we should have against Australia and people got really angry.
“They were just burning our stuff and throwing stones at our homes. They get a bit emotional.”
Even with a disastrous defeat averted, the adrenaline of victory kept Harbhajan from sleeping the night after the match as well.
“When we won the game I couldn’t sleep the next day either because I was too excited and too happy. That’s what the Pakistan game does to you,” he said.
“Obviously it’s one of those games when the pressure is a little more than when you play against England or New Zealand.
“People in both countries want their respective teams to win and if you end up losing the game the people really get up upset and they go on to lose their minds, which is obviously quite bad.”
Although they were crushed by Pakistan in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, India have never lost to them at a World Cup, winning at the last two tournaments, and are favourites to extend that run when the rivalry resumes in Manchester.
“As a player you always want to play well against Pakistan, so there is more pressure. It’s not just for Indian players but for Pakistani players as well,” he said.
“But there is more pressure on the Indian players because we have a very good record in these games and we don’t want to change that.”
‘It’s not a war’: Wasim calls for calm in the clash
Pakistani legend Wasim Akram has urged fans on both the sides of the border to stay calm during his country’s potentially volatile World Cup clash.
Wasim, who is in England for the match as a commentator, labelled the latest meeting between the old enemies as “the biggest match of the World Cup”.
But with passions running high among both fanbases and political relations between the countries extremely tense, Wasim said the match should be enjoyed rather than used to inflame the situation.
“This can’t be bigger,” Wasim told AFP on Friday. “India and Pakistan playing at the World Cup with over a billion audience is the biggest thing in cricket, so my message to both sets of fans to enjoy it and stay calm.
“One team will win, one team will lose, so stay graceful and do not take this as a war. Those who project this match as war are not true cricket fans.”
The Old Trafford clash is a sell-out, with tickets now for sale on the black market at reported prices of around $3,150.
And former pace bowler Wasim admitted any India against Pakistan match has pressure, let alone one in the World Cup.
“Who can realise the pressure more than me?” said Wasim. “I used to look forward to a match against India because it brings the best out of the players from both the sides.”
“Pakistan can beat India through controlled aggression,” said Wasim, who was part of the Pakistan team in the 1992, 1999, 2003 World Cups when they lost to India.
He was sidelined through a shoulder injury when India beat Pakistan in the 1996 quarter-finals.
“Yes, I don’t have fond memories of the World Cup matches against India but I have enjoyed all these matches over the year as fans are glued to television wherever they are. It will be like that again on Sunday,” he said.
Wasim admits India have a stronger line-up, but he insists Pakistan can still shock their rivals in a one-off match, as they did in the 2017 Champions Trophy final.
“Yes, India have a strong batting and bowling line up but Pakistan can match them. When it comes to India and Pakistan game the team that handles the pressure well wins the day,” he said.
“I surely hop that rain stays off. Fans want to watch a full matches, intense and lively so we all hope that rain stays away.”