If the Champions Trophy has suffered a couple of dreary matches it will receive just the boost it needs on Saturday, for there’s never a dull moment when India play Pakistan. When these two teams clash, the temperature automatically rises, the shrill voices of patriotic fans reaches a crescendo and the on-field action has an edge about it.
The players will assure you that they treat these clashes as just another game, but in truth it is anything but that. For fans from both countries, victory against the old enemy carries as much weight as tournament success itself. India will legitimately feel they have the edge over Pakistan in big matches — in seven clashes in ICC events Pakistan have won just once.
But Mahendra Singh Dhoni is not one to linger too much on history and looking at this match in isolation, Pakistan are the more buoyant side.
They already have a win in this tournament, and are strengthened by the return of Younis Khan, who sat out the first game as a precautionary measure following a hairline finger fracture.
India, in contrast, were set back by the loss of vice-captain Yuvraj Singh, whose fielding accident resulted in a fracture and six weeks out of the game. Yuvraj has grown into a huge presence in the batting order, and certainly there is no ready replacement for someone so explosive.
In recent times he has also stamped himself on the game with the ball, and the combined package makes for the ideal one-day cricketer.
Virat Kohli, who took Yuvraj’s place, arrived in Johannesburg on Friday and participated enthusiastically in the afternoon training session. The bowlers’ preparations were given a shot in the arm as Zaheer Khan, who is in South Africa for rehabilitation work on his shoulder, spoke in detail to the players at the nets.
The think-tank has a tricky decision to make when finalising the composition for the big game. Do they go with a specialist batsman and play Kohli, or perhaps use Dinesh Karthik, who is able and willing to bat in any position in the top order? Or will they plump for the allround option of Abhishek Nayar?
The one question Pakistan have is over Mohammad Asif, whose one-year doping ban ended recently. While Asif is decidedly short on match practice, he has been devastating against the Indians in the past and Younis will have to fight the temptation of throwing his ace fast bowler into the mix in a big game.
Five days after India landed in Johannesburg, their campaign begins in right earnest. Fasten your seatbelts.