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Brothers in arms

The story of today's epic India-Pakistan cricket encounter, unfashionably, is the cricket, writes Rahul Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Sep 14, 2011 14:36 IST

In the innocent old days, namely six weeks ago, tour operators were offering day trips to the Mohali semi-final from Delhi for Rs 16,500.

Then news emerged that, no matter what, the tournament rules were such that if India qualified for the semi-final, they would certainly play in Mohali, not Colombo. Some 10 million hits besieged and defeated its servers; the tickets eventually had to be lotteried.

Then, bit by bit, the entire fantastic possibility began to come together. Pakistan topped their group; India failed to top theirs. In the first quarter-final in Dhaka, Pakistan's sleight-handed bowlers perplexed the West Indians into paralysis.

In Ahmedabad, India overcame a horrendous surge of self-sabotage to end Australia's decade of World Cup supremacy. And there it was: India vs Pakistan, World Cup semi-final, in Punjab. Rs 16,500 won't buy you even a call to your local black-ticketer.

But the point I want to make is that almost none of these tickets is going to Pakistanis. Which is why it is odd to find the 2004 tour of Pakistan by India so readily called up in the context of this semi-final.

On that tour, at least 11,000 ordinary citizens crossed the border. This number was unprecedented since the early years after Partition, when the border was porous. Some spent not days but weeks in the country; some were hosted in Pakistani homes.

It was a time of hope and warmth, perhaps catharsis, and there was a feeling that through cricket the peace process had received such a resounding people's mandate that maybe, just maybe, we were onto something.

By contrast at Mohali there will be no more than a few hundred from across the border, and those mainly restricted to the VIP boxes.

The 2004 tour was also part of a planned engagement. Governments were talking at various levels, trade was on the up, firing on the border was down. The Samjhauta Express was running. Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Gilani's little impromptu rendezvous, by comparison, seems neither here nor there.

It carries neither the intent of negotiation nor the comfort of friendship. I can't imagine they will be cracking jokes while eating popcorn. Nor, I imagine, can they be discussing Hafiz Saeed. Perhaps they will fondly reminisce about the days Dawood Ibrahim would appear in printed shirts and large sunglasses at Sharjah.

As sports dates go, Singh has arranged hot tickets, but one suspects both parties will go home somewhat nonplussed. Apart from raising the profile of a cricket match that didn't need any more profile, it's difficult to see its relevance. No, the story of this particular India-Pakistan cricket encounter, unfashionably, is the cricket. It's in there somewhere, the prospect of a terrific cricket match.

Pakistan has had a dismal few years. They became the first team ever to forfeit a Test match. Their beloved coach died on tour. Their players were banned for eating drugs and cricket balls, and finally, for fixing matches, or some part of them.

The last claimed the irresistibly enthralling new-ball pair of Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir. The terrible attack in Lahore in 2009 not only endangered the lives of Sri Lankan cricketers, it also killed the opportunity for Pakistani cricketers to play on home soil.

To rise from these circumstances to win, often spectacularly, more matches than any other team in this World Cup has been, well, typical Pakistan. They fall off cliffs and grow wings on the way down.

India, on the other hand, have been riding high for some years now so that for the first time, with the possible exception of 1987, they entered the World Cup as favourites. What Pakistan's bowlers deliver - flair, dazzle, melodrama - India's batsmen do.

Combined with morose fielding and single-toothed bowling, there is something vintage about this Indian side too. In one area, however, it is far removed from its predecessors, which is mental strength. They don't wet themselves at the idea of winning.

Sport has a way of delivering these scripts. One might argue that the perfect end would have been a title fight at the Wankhede on Saturday. But just as well for that. Much better for this game to be hosted by Punjabis, whose sentimentality in the matter of Pakistan may balm some of the hysterical jingoism going around.

In Mumbai, the site of 26/11, home of the Senas, the game might have been swallowed by threats and fears and a nasty nationalism. It is the last thing that two limited but thrilling sides deserve in a surprising cricket World Cup. I hope Shoaib plays and Sachin takes first strike.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of Pundits from Pakistan, a book on the 2004 cricket tour of India in Pakistan. His novel The Sly Company of People Who Care, is out. The views expressed by the author are personal