MANCHESTER, England – It’s the contest for continental supremacy played on a global stage.
It’s the mini-title game of the World Cup group stage for more than 1 billion people in two cricket-crazed countries _ the nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan.
The sport British colonizers 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 earlier this week. “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.”
India has won all six times the countries have met at the Cricket World Cup, but Pakistan has won more of their one-day international meetings overall _ 73-54 _ and caused an upset here 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 the last time India beat Pakistan at the World Cup, a game staged far away in the southern Australian city of Adelaide in 2015.
Sunday’s venue at Old Trafford in Manchester will be swamped with ex-pats and tourists. The television audience is hyped up to rival the football World Cup final.
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, more exciting,” he said. “Careers could be defined by moments in the game.”
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. Kohli’s team 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.
It was raining Saturday in Manchester and areas around the covers were saturated. Rain was expected to clear overnight, with most dry, breezy conditions on Sunday with potential for showers.
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.
Imam-ul-Haq, who scored a half-century in the 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.”
There’s always tension around the game, with conflict rhetoric building up on social and mainstream media in recent weeks.
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.
He played a straight bat a pre-game news conference Saturday to every question regarding the extra significance of the contest, saying in Hindi: “Look, I don’t want to say something here that is for (television) ratings.”
“I don’t even entertain thoughts that I need to win this competition and show it to rest of the world,” he added. “All that is outside talk.”
Diplomatic relations have been strained over the disputed Kashmir region, and Narendra Modi excluded Pakistan counterpart Imran Khan from a list of regional leaders invited to his swearing-in ceremony as India‘s prime minister last month.
Modi 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.
Both PMs no doubt will be closely monitoring the cricket, although Imran will have a deeper understanding of what the contest is like. The former star cricketer led Pakistan to its only World Cup title in 1992.