By Shane Thomas
Now that the farce of the group stages of the Cricket World Cup are now done, the tournament is now worth bothering with. And in Mohali next Wednesday morning, we may see the most compelling game of cricket of 2011.
Cricket may remain a minority sport to many, but try telling that to anyone in India or Pakistan right now. Not only is cricket the national sport of both nations, but the rivalry (sadly, not just for sporting reasons) is one of the most combustible in sport. Add the fact that a place in the World Cup final is up for grabs, and all the ingredients are in place for a memorable occasion.
The demands from both sets of fans cannot be underestimated here. Cricket in India is something of a religion, and is now also multi-million pound business. Players like the coruscating Virender Sehwag, captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni & the incomparable Sachin Tendulkar are feted as demi-gods, and with home advantage, the Indian public are expecting nothing less than their heroes securing their first World Cup 28 years.
As for Pakistan...well, where to start. Treated with scorn by many in the cricket fraternity after the spot-fixing scandal that ruined their tour of England last summer, with an infrastructure that is an insult to the word. Indeed they lost the right to co-host this tournament after terrorists used their matches as a platform for their own nefarious and fatal ends.
The world of Pakistani cricket is chaotic and capricious. And yet, despite all the mayhem behind the scenes, something happens to them when they take to the field. On their day, Pakistan have an ability to harness their talent as if by magic to beat any side. This was shown when they became World 20/20 Champions in 2009. It's fair to say that Pakistan have probably been the most impressive side in the World Cup so far. Their captain, Shahid "Boom Boom " Afridi is the competition's leading wicket taker, they finished top of their group, and ended Australia's 35 match unbeaten record in the process. Two days ago, they humiliated the West Indies, and are the team with momentum on their side.
So it's all set up for a mouthwatering encounter in five days time. The faux-contests of the group stages are over. This is knockout cricket. No second chances, no do-overs. Lose and you go home.
The crowd will be raucous. The atmosphere febrile. And India have their best crop of players for a generation. It may be their best chance to win the World Cup, and they dare not lose to their most bitter rivals - in their own country no less.
But no side dares more than Pakistan. They have the patent on thrilling, edge of your seat cricket. They relish confounding the experts, playing like omnipotent wizards, and would love nothing more than shattering the dreams of millions of Indian fans.
Personally, I wouldn't even try and call the outcome of this match. It's one of those occasions where I'm just happy to be a neutral. Whatever happens, it's likely to be explosive. Sit back and enjoy.
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