MANCHESTER: The eyes of more than a billion television viewers around the globe will turn to Manchester when arch-rivals India and Pakistan meet on Sunday in the most highly-anticipated group match of the World Cup.
Such was the desire of fans to cheer on their heroes in person that, according to the International Cricket Council’s own figures, there were some 800,000 applications for tickets to watch the match at an Old Trafford ground where the capacity is 26,000.
It’s no wonder then that officials are desperate the match does not fall victim to rain in what is already a record World Cup for washouts.
“India v Pakistan is always a big game – it’s like the final before the final,” said Pakistan selection chief Inzamam-ul-Haq. “It’s watched all over the world and whoever wins on Sunday will surely have a big celebration.”
This match is all the more eagerly awaited because political pressures have put a stop to India-Pakistan fixtures outside of major tournaments.
India cut off bilateral cricket ties with its neighbour after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, which authorities blamed on Pakistani militants.
Pakistan toured India in 2012/13 for a series of one-day internationals and Twenty20 matches but that was their last encounter outside of a multi-national event.
And there were calls for a boycott of Sunday’s match after tensions soared following a deadly incident in the divided territory of Kashmir earlier this year.
In February a suicide bombing in the Indian-administered section, claimed by a militant group based in Pakistan, killed 40 Indian troops.
India and Pakistan then carried out tit-for-tat air strikes.
Remarkably, given the strengths of both sides, India have won all six of their previous World Cup encounters against Pakistan.
India also beat Pakistan in their most recent match at the Asia Cup in the United Arab Emirates last year.
But Pakistan can take heart from the final of the 2017 Champions Trophy in England, when they thrashed India by 180 runs.
An India team led by star batsman Virat Kohli have lived up to their billing as potential champions with two wins and a washout in three matches so far.
The number-two ranked side won their opener against South Africa and then beat title-holders Australia before a no result against New Zealand.
– Pakistan struggles –
Pakistan, by contrast, are struggling in the 10-team event with just one win — an upset against England — two defeats and a washout.
But former batsman Inzamam, a member of the Pakistan team that won the 1992 World Cup, insisted all was not lost for Sarfaraz Ahmed’s side.
“I believe Pakistan have the ability to win the World Cup,” he said.
“They haven’t performed too well so far, and Sunday is important for them to stay in the competition.”
The stakes are not as high for India but that is unlikely to ease the pressure on Kohli’s men.
“It’s been competitive for years. It’s a marquee event all over the world, and an honour to be a part of the big game,” Kohli said. “It brings out the best in all of us.”
Some supporters put winning Sunday’s match above seeing their side lift the World Cup trophy.
“We want to win this match even if Kohli loses the Cup, we don’t care,” Harron Memon, an India fan in Nottingham, told AFP.
Pakistan, for all their World Cup woes, have won 73 of their 131 one-day internationals against India and one Pakistan fan tweeted: “We have always dominated India in cricket. Call it war or sport, we are certainly going to win it come Sunday.”
Former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram, however, urged supporters to keep the match in perspective.
“One team will win, one team will lose, so stay graceful and do not take this as a war,” he told AFP in Manchester.
“Those who project this match as war are not true cricket fans.”
Meanwhile former India captain Bishan Singh Bedi, made his own appeal for calm by telling AFP: “May there be peace and tranquility while the two Asian giants fight it out on the cricket field.
“And may the better team win without losing out on the etiquette of cricket.”