Saturday 24 June 2017

Cricket: Political posturing hijacks titanic collision of old rivals

India's Sachin Tendulkar Photo: Getty Images
India's Sachin Tendulkar Photo: Getty Images

Derek Pringle

The border between India and Pakistan is 150 miles west of Mohali, where today's semi-final between the two countries takes place, but it may as well have been transplanted here for all the nationalistic posturing that goes with the match.

The cricket is a sideshow as politicians hijack the occasion for the higher purpose of trying to get on with their neighbours.

Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, will both attend the match.

Relations between these nations have been frosty since the Mumbai terror attack in 2008 and this is seen as a chance to begin the thaw.

Cricket has been used before to quell growing discord between the countries, as Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi acknowledged.

"I think it is a great sign for both countries that the politicians are attending together," Afridi said. "Sport, especially cricket, always brings these two countries together."

Seen through foreign eyes, the police and army presence, the no-fly zones and the robot bomb-disposal units make this look more like a freak show than a sporting event, yet India has never been shy to flex a bit of military muscle.

The last time England toured here, in the wake of the Mumbai attack, an exclusion zone was set around this ground. This is a repeat -- times 10.

There have been some quirky deployments of the security forces, such as the one handed to two of the city's policemen who must eat three meals a day with the Indian and Pakistan players, just to ensure nothing untoward is slipped into their food. It probably makes a pleasant change from directing the traffic, but they might have packed on a few pounds had Inzamam-ul-Haq still been playing.

For many, it is a match that neither team can afford to lose. Whoever does will face burning effigies, and maybe worse. Much of the hyperbole is just that, but one claim that might not be is the TV audience, which will break all records for a one-day match.

India has a population just shy of 1.2 billion while Pakistan has 360 million and most will have an eye or ear tuned to the match. If it is possible to judge a team by the performance of their captain in the press conferences, then Pakistan have won this one on wit and verve. Afridi's response to a question about whether his young players would buckle under the pressure brought howls of laughter after he said that he "wasn't worried as the match was bound to increase the average age of his side anyway".

Hanging over the big occasion is Sachin Tendulkar's 100th international century, something that no other batsman is close to matching (Ricky Ponting, who stood down yesterday as Australia captain, is the closest with 70). But for all India's batting brilliance, it's pressure, not form, that will settle the issue.

The side that copes better will meet Sri Lanka, who beat New Zealand yesterday by five wickets. Muttiah Muralitharan took a wicket with his final ball in his home country to earn figures of 2-42 as New Zealand toiled to 216 all out.

In reply, Sri Lanka were cruising at 160-1 before four quick wickets left them at 185-5, however, that was as close as New Zealand could get. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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