Cricket: India-Pakistan rivalry spices up semis

Anyone who believes cricket is just a game is likely to have that opinion altered when India and Pakistan play their World Cup semifinal in the border state of Punjab tonight.

Fixtures between the two nations always engender huge passion among both sets of supporters.

With the prize of a place in the World Cup final at stake, a fever-pitch mood is expected with the 30,000-capacity Punjab Cricket Association Stadium sold out days ago.

The match will be a clash between Pakistan's well-balanced bowling attack and India's star-studded top order, including Sachin Tendulkar, who needs just one more century for 100 international hundreds.

"We believe we have the strongest bowling attack in the world," said Pakistan opening batsman Mohammad Hafeez, who took the new ball with his off-spin in the quarter-final win over the West Indies. "That's the key."

Pakistan's Umar Gul is arguably the best reverse-swing bowler at this tournament while Saaed Ajmal's off-spin is a potent weapon. And then there is the leg-spin of Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi, who is the tournament's top bowler with 21 wickets at an average of just 10.71 apiece.

Meanwhile, fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar, who will retire after the World Cup, waits in the wings. Akhtar has played just three games at this tournament but the suspicion remains that India's batsmen can be troubled by high-class fast bowling.

India did manage to overcome champions Australia's three-pronged pace attack in a five-wicket quarter-final win in Ahmedabad but that was on a pitch favouring spin.

Even then, India collapsed to 187 for five chasing 261 to win, and it needed a composed 57 not out from the in-form Yuvraj Singh to see the co-hosts home.

Yuvraj returns to his home ground after winning four man-of-the-match awards including against Australia.

Apart from a century and four half-centuries, he has also snared 11 wickets with his left-arm spin, second only to paceman Zaheer Khan (19) among India's bowlers.

Pakistan's batsmen, meanwhile, have not produced a century.

Umar Akmal has the highest aggregate of 211 runs, which is below that of the top five Indian batsmen.

Traditionally, the Mohali pitch has always offered plenty of pace and bounce and that could yet see Pakistan give Akhtar one last shot at India.

"I always enjoy my bowling, especially against India. I'm in my peak form. I hope that when Shoaib plays it will be very good for me," said Gul.

Pakistan's ability to make early inroads into a top order featuring Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir could be decisive.

India's bowlers, notably left-arm quick Zaheer Khan and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, did a good containing job against Australia.

India will look for similar results in a bid to book a place in the April 2 Mumbai final against either Sri Lanka or New Zealand.

The hosts were giving little away ahead of a match that has witnessed "cricket diplomacy" with Pakistan's Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, accepting an invitation from Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh to attend the game.

Pakistan have lost all four of their World Cup matches against India but will be buoyed by a 10-wicket quarter-final mauling of the West Indies.

Hafeez said: "Pakistan has not defeated India in the World Cup but in the last 12 years, Australia also had not lost a single World Cup game. But then they lost to us [by four wickets] and to India. Whoever the opponent is, we try to win the day."

- AFP

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