Cricket World Cup: India v Pakistan: rather more than a cricket game

Stephen Fay says that the backdrop to this week's Manchester meeting will make for a dramatic day
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LISTEN TO the Manchester police. They say they have approached Tuesday's game between India and Pakistan "as they would any other large sporting event". Then hear the voice of the scalpers on the internet: "We have tickets for all the sold-out Super Six games for pounds 200, except for India and Pakistan which will be pounds 250."

Supply and demand plays a part in the price differential. There are an awful lot of Indian fans in search of a ticket of any kind. Brijesh Patel, the Indian team manager, says that all 18,000 tickets for the Australia game at The Oval last Friday could have been sold in Bombay and Delhi. Indeed, added Patel, they could all have been sold to people named Patel.

But there is more to this game than economics. India and Pakistan is like Celtic and Rangers, except on a continental scale. My colleague, Robert Winder, watching the last World Cup clash between the teams, wrote: "Victory for either side would vindicate the gods, their taboos, their diets, their territorial claims - the lot." Since both countries have been involved in a shooting war in Kashmir, the territorial claims move to the top of the list this year.

Contrast this with the response of the captains. Wasim Akram says: "I would ask all fans to co-operate. I don't believe there will be any trouble. It's only a game after all." Mohammad Azharuddin is even more detached. "It's for the police to look after the security of both sides. Politically, I'm not bothered. I'm bothered with winning the game."

The odd thing about this intriguing encounter is that India's defeat by Australia on Friday makes their qualification for the semi-finals entirely improbable. But that does not mean it does not matter; for many of the spectators it will be a matter of life and death. For the players, it is a continuation of life as they have always known it.

There is no personal edge between the teams. They play each other so regularly that they know each other intimately. "One should never forget that we are great friends," says Wasim Akram. A cynical Indian journalist adds that they are drawn together because they belong to the same betting culture. "They're in and out of each other's hotel bedrooms all the time," he says.

The playing field may not be quite as level as it looks, however. Mihir Bose, the historian of Indian cricket, brought Azharuddin up short on Friday, when he said that, historically, when India play Pakistan, they seem to have an inferiority complex. "That's not a problem all the time... we have done quite well against them." But Azha did not sound entirely convinced.

But India have done well enough against them in the World Cup. The sides have met only twice. First in Sydney in 1993 when India won by 43 runs, helped by 54 not out from a 19-year-old named Sachin Tendulkar. In Bangalore in 1996, India (287) beat Pakistan (248) by 39 runs. Seven players from that Indian team will play at Old Trafford; five from the Pakistan side.

But Pakistan are firm favourites. They humiliated India in the final in Sharjah in April, although India had won by six wickets in one of the preliminary games. Pakistan had won the Pepsi Cup a month earlier, beating India three times, by 143 runs, three wickets, and 123 runs.

Tendulkar, who was not playing in any of these games, is the key man. At the outset of the World Cup, Wasim dismissed India as a threat - unless Tendulkar made a big score. His importance to the team was spotlighted by India's defeat by Zimbabwe in the preliminary round - a game he missed because of his father's death. "It did affect us," says Patel. "You could see it in the body language. We did not play as well as we had against South Africa at Hove."

India began Friday's crucial game against Australia full of confidence. Although their 233 against England was 20 less than they wanted, their bowlers had bailed out their batsmen. That was one reason why Azharuddin put Australia in to bat. The tactic failed partly because Australia's openers were lucky and India's attack bowled a bit too short.

But when India play Pakistan, it is a mistake to rely too heavily on the form sheet. What is happening in the players' heads is heavy with significance. This has little to do with the loss of Indian aircraft over Kashmir. ("None of the players really knows what's happening," says Patel.) A greater influence is their foreknowledge of the implications of defeat.

After Bangalore in 1996, Wasim's father was kidnapped, and the mixture of fear and anger this caused still lingers. Preventing the repetition of such incidents is a powerful incentive to play hard and well. As for Azha, he is playing for his job.

Old Trafford might not influence the outcome of the tournament, but ignore that. India against Pakistan is not any other large sporting event. It is one of the dramatic climaxes of the World Cup.