India will meet Pakistan today for the 117th time in one-day internationals. But every time is like the first time. Familiarity breeds only increased passion and the ground at Centurion is sold out and could have been sold out twice more.
Indeed, the contests between these countries outside the subcontinent are supported every bit as raucously as those at Eden Gardens in Kolkata, or the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. One of the abiding memories of the World Twenty20 in England in the early part of the summer was the match between India and Pakistan.
The Oval was full of British Asians and no one who heard it will forget the sound of the Pakistani contingent in the crowd chanting at the followers of India: "You're not singing any more." India won that match by a distance but it was Pakistan who went on to win the tournament.
It is Pakistan too who have the better record of matches between the two. Of the 117 between the pair, Pakistan have won 68 times compared to India's 45. It was India, however, who prevailed in the only other match they played at Centurion Park.
In the 2003 World Cup they chased down 274 to win as though it was a walk in the park and Sachin Tendulkar played one of his greatest one-day innings. Considering the gifts of the man that might seem to be some assessment but he was magisterial, a man at the height of his powers who cut drove and pulled with power and élan to the sheer delight of a crowd that might actually have been in the Wankhede at Mumbai. The only surprise was when, on 98, he spliced his 75th ball to the gully.
Tendulkar will be there again today along with Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh as survivors from that side of six years ago. It is certain, however, that he will not play an innings as he did then. This has nothing to do with declining powers– his durability is remarkable – but with the state of the pitch. Unless some miraculous remedy has been found for slow, turning, attritional pieces of turf, today's match will be a low-scoring affair in which 250 may be the extreme height of ambition.
Pakistan cruised to victory against the West Indies in their opening match and they will benefit from the return of their captain Younis Khan. In a close group this is a key contest. It is not, for once, simply about beating arch-rivals, it is about progress. India are favourites but that is as meaningless a tag in this game as it has been 117 times previously.