By Amlan Chakraborty
MANCHESTER (Reuters) – Perennial political rivals India and Pakistan will face off on a Manchester cricket field on Sunday in one of the World Cup’s most hotly-anticipated and massively-watched games.
The nuclear-armed neighbours have gone to war three times since independence in the mid-20th century – and another conflict nearly erupted earlier this year, giving an even spicier-than-usual geopolitical backdrop to the sport.
Some former players and fans even urged India to boycott the match at Old Trafford in protest at a suicide bomb that killed at least 40 police in Indian-controlled Kashmir in February.
But the game was still the first World Cup fixture to sell out – hours after tickets went on sale for the 19,000-capacity stadium – and millions more will be watching at home.
India captain Virat Kohli and his Pakistani counterpart Sarfaraz Ahmed have played it cool, saying the players are only focussed on the game – despite obviously being aware of the hype.
“As soon as we step onto the field, it’s professional cricket … for us it’s just another game you need to win as a team,” Kohli said at a pre-tournament captains’ session with reporters. “Eventually it’s a game of bat and ball and that’s what you need to focus on.”
Sitting next to him, stumper Sarfaraz nodded in agreement.
Crude television commercials have added to the raucous buildup. An Indian one notes the unbeaten World Cup record against Pakistan and asks ‘who’s the daddy?’
A Pakistani station ran a spoof of an Indian pilot captured during recent hostilities, depicting him being interrogated wearing cricket colours.
“Cringeworthy ads on both sides of the border,” tweeted Indian tennis star Sania Mirza, who is married to Pakistan cricketer Shoaib Malik.
“It’s only cricket for God’s sake, and if you think it’s anymore than that, then get a grip or get a life!”
While playing down its significance, players on both sides know that for volatile fans, they can become an instant hero with a century or an overnight villain with a dropped catch.
Pakistan are the undoubted underdogs, having never beaten India at a World Cup, not even when they won the title in 1992.
Under Kohli, India have made a strong start to their quest for a third World Cup title, with a clinical victory against holders Australia. Sarfaraz’s men need a pickup after slumping to a second defeat in four matches against Australia.
“It’s simple – if Pakistan want to stay in the tournament, they have to bring an ‘A plus’ performance and win that game,” Pakistan pace great Waqar Younis wrote in a column.
“The match has always meant so much to both countries.”
Fans hope the inclement English weather, which has already wreaked havoc with the tournament, does not provide an anti-climax after so much anticipation.
(Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in Manchester; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)