As masses descend on the party Dhoni and Afridi try to keep eye on the ball

Captains try to play down political backdrop of today's semi-final – but to no avail. Stephen Brenkley reports from a frenetic Mohali
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The Independent Online

When Le Corbusier designed the new town of Chandigarh 60 years ago he might have imagined a day like this. But only in his wildest dreams. Prime ministers, lesser ministers, Bollywood superstars, ordinary stars, corporate moguls, plain chief executives, and a few, a very few, simple cricket fans, are flocking to the city in north-west India.

The object of their ardour is not the place of neat rectangles that the chic Swiss architect built. It is the World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali, the down-at-heel suburb next door.

As soon as it became clear that the two countries would meet (always a possibility, although the fantastically complicated draw, which could not have been designed by Le Corbusier in 1,000 years, managed to conceal most possibilities) the match was hijacked. By yesterday it was being seen as a symbol of rapprochement between two countries who have made no attempt to contain their mutual loathing for each other. The players were virtually being hailed as emissaries of peace.

Beyond that, there remained much more sinister overtones. The fear that the game could be the target of terrorist attack to draw attention to grievances either real or imagined, or causes either meritorious or meretricious, has led to security measures, which it could only be hoped were as thorough as they were frenzied.

The match is being played in a place and arena patently ill-equipped for the purpose. The Mohali ground was built on former swampland only 20 years ago, and while it is open and perfectly pleasant it has a capacity of only 28,000. Chandigarh, because of its location, is not easily accessible. This tie could and should have been played elsewhere. It may be coincidental that IS Bindra, the president of the Punjab Cricket Association, is also special adviser to the ICC.

Against this backdrop, it is difficult to treat the contest as a mere cricket match between one side who started the competition as favourites and another who began it as a cavalier bunch of itinerant jokers. The captains of both sides tried to play down the ancillary matters yesterday though neither MS Dhoni of India nor Shahid Afridi of Pakistan were entirely convincing.

Dhoni has adopted a take it or leave it attitude towards his media duties during this tournament. He has gone through the obligatory motions, no more, and otherwise India have played no kind of ball at all with the attendant reporters, commentators and pundits.

The players truly have become bigger than the game. Dhoni stares out from every billboard but he delivers perfunctory if polite responses to all questions. This approach at least helped him to ensure there was no chance of being drawn into the political ramifications.

"Somebody has to lose this game, irrespective of political talking," he said. "At the end of the 30th March, one team will have lost and one will be through to the final. That is part and parcel of sport, every sport. I have been unaware of what has been happening politically for 30 to 35 days and not watching television has been a big part of that."

Afridi was slightly more engaged by the peripheries. "I think it's a great sign for both countries – and sports, especially cricket, always brings these two countries together," he said. "The main thing is to know how to handle the pressure. We don't need to panic under pressure. I think I am the cricketer first and then the diplomat. I am an ambassador for Pakistan, so I should know what to say. I am very happy."

The most genuine aspect of the whole pre-match formalities yesterday happened when Dhoni and Afridi met as one left the press briefing and the other entered. This does not usually happen in the carefully orchestrated world of professional sport, where the combatants are kept apart until they meet on the field, but they shook hands with respectful, mutual warmth and smiled sincerely.

At its most straightforward the match may come down to who wins the confrontation between India's batting and Pakistan's bowling. It is not as simple as that, of course, but still that aspect of it could be decisive. Of the Indian top order, only Dhoni has failed to fire – and he manifestly refused to countenance the idea that this was because of outside distractions such as the captaincy or that he was taking on too much extra-curricular activity.

Sachin Tendulkar has scored two hundreds in the tournament already and now has 99 international hundreds in all. If it is possible to do so, his legend could only be burnished were he to make it 100 in today's match. India's middle order has been stabilised by Yuvraj Singh, whose clear extra poundage has not prevented his playing some measured innings which have brought five scores above fifty.

This crack unit will be up against the two most thrilling bowlers of the past month. Umar Gul, the Peshawar swinger, who was so influential in Pakistan's World Twenty20 victory in England two years ago, has again managed to time his peak accordingly.

Afridi himself is the leading wicket-taker of the tournament. Dhoni spoke with some reverence about him yesterday when he remarked how quickly his first 150 wickets had come (in 170 matches) compared to his second 150 (107 matches). Afridi has looked the most menacing bowler of all this past month, with batsmen unable to judge the pace or vicious dip of his leg-spin.

If India can confound these two they can find enough to prevail. There is a further element which Pakistan may explore. Although they were leaning heavily against it, they may just call up Shoaib Akhtar to see if he can roll back the years one more time and make early inroads with his raw pace. It might be worth the gamble.

Pakistan's batting is a hotch potch, but then so is India's bowling. The leading scorer for Pakistan is 20-year-old Umar Akmal, with 211 runs, but five Indians have scored more. Only Zaheer Khan has been regularly incisive with the ball for India, conjuring up key wickets at key times, but otherwise there has been an air of make do and mend.

There was some mild excitement yesterday about the release of the India coach Gary Kirsten's dossier, "Roadmap to Success". This is not the first time that Kirsten's printed thoughts have been leaked and he might have learned the lesson that he should keep them to himself. One of the insights he provided was: "Pakistan as a team blow hot and old. [In]consistency is their prime weakness." As he may find out, it is also their great strength.

Mohali details


India (possible): V Sehwag, S R Tendulkar, G Gambhir, V Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni (capt/wk), S K Raina, R Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh, Z Khan, A Nehra.

Pakistan (possible): Kamran Akmal (wk), Mohammad Hafeez, Asad Shafiq, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq, Umar Akmal, Shahid Afridi (capt), Abdul Razzaq, Saeed Ajmal, Umar Gul, Wahab Riaz.

Pitch report There is no reason to think the pitch will play any different than usual, meaning it will favour batsmen.

Umpires I Gould (Eng) & S Taufel (Aus).

TV Sky Sports 1: 9.30am - 7.30pm.

Weather Warm and humid.