If we look closely at history, we will learn that most wars had more engrossing, gripping and dramatic battles within them. History in its overreaching, panoramic perception may not highlight the frissons of excitement in a battle.
An India-Pakistan match in a World Cup campaign is such a battle where the game is taken out of a canister and placed in a cauldron of simmering socio-cultural and political emotions, often boiling over, spilling into unsavory circumstances.
A billion people may forgive Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his group of disillusioned youngsters if they fail to defend the ICC World Cup they won four years ago in all pomp and glory. But they may not shy away from pulling down a few posters, gnashing their teeth and clenching their fists if India go down to Pakistan in their group match at Adelaide on 15 February.
In such a battle — a face-off with underlying generations of fused passions and feelings — forgiveness for the defeated can only be a wish as the one for the dodos to come back to life.
Dhoni can take heart from history, but history does not always repeat.
It is true that Pakistan have never beaten India in a World Cup tie. Even in their victorious campaign in 1992 under an enigmatic, charismatic skipper Imran Khan, who had nursed a burning ambition to build a cancer hospital in memory of his late mother to fuel the desire to win the title for his team, Pakistan fell apart against India.
In the 1992 edition, held in the southern hemisphere like the upcoming one, Pakistan had mostly played insipid cricket. Before their inspired performance in the later stages, they had sneaked through to the knockout stage by virtue of a shared point with England in a rain-curtailed match.
In the fag end of the tournament, Inzamam-ul-Haq bloomed in a violent manner, and then in the final, Wasim Akram bowled from heaven — knocking the daylights out of the English — with the skill and wizardry of a fast bowler with a god-nudged left hand.
But against India, the Pakistanis cracked. The Indians themselves were not at all playing any inspired cricket. Smarting under a horrible tour Down Under, the Indians under Mohammed Azharuddin looked an under-performing unit during most of the tournament. But against Pakistan, India managed to dig deep into their reservoir of inspiration and stitched together moments of good cricket to take the game home.
But that was the only highlight of the Indian campaign. Once they were out of the fray, the then manager, Bishen Singh Bedi, had famously said — though later he said he had been misquoted — that Team India was the worst in the world and should be thrown into the Pacific Ocean.
Dhoni and his beleaguered men — who are at the moment staggering like rabbits caught in the stare of headlights Down Under — can only breathe easy when they look at the scorecards against Pakistan in the past five World Cup encounters.
The World Cup encounters began with the 1992 edition in Sydney where India won by 43 runs, riding on an all-round performance by a young and bustling Sachin Tendulkar, who scored a half-century and picked up a wicket. The match also saw an ageing Javed Miandad scoring an uncharacteristically slow 40 runs.
In the 1996 edition in Bangalore, India prevailed by 39 runs in a match remembered for Ajay Jadeja’s blitzkrieg against Waqar Younis and the war of words between Aamir Sohail and Venkatesh Prasad.
In 1999 at Old Trafford, England, India stretched their winning streak against their archrivals by beating them by 47 runs with Prasad packing off Pakistan’s top order by picking up five wickets for 27 runs.
At Centurion Park in Gauteng, South Africa, in 2003, the Pakistanis thought they had enough runs to defend — 273 — but then Tendulkar had other ideas as he tore Shoaib Akhtar apart despite the fast bowler’s speed and bounce. India cantered home with four overs to spare.
The next meeting was at Mohali in the 2011 edition. India scored 260 despite a searing five-wicket haul from an unheralded Wahab Riaz. Captain Dhoni used his bowlers effectively to win by 29 runs.
This time around, both teams have their own issues to sort out. While talent has never been in short supply for Pakistan, the team is dogged by injuries — some of the leading players such as Mohammed Hafeez are already out. There are also disconcerted voices about the team combination. However, when the opponents are India, all these don’t matter and the team can spring a surprise.
As Pakistan legend Zaheer Abbas says, this is the best chance for the team to break the Indian hoodoo. The stylish right-hander, who had scored three consecutive odi centuries against India, finds a few chinks in the Indian team like the absence of players such as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly. “This is the best chance for Pakistan to break the jinx,” he says.
Pakistan coach Waqar Younis has said that the team would focus all their energies and channel all their resources to beat India in their campaign opener.
For the Indians, nothing has fallen into place so far in their run-up to their title defence. Having underperformed in all departments of the game in the long tour of Australia, the hosts crushed them in their warm-up match, with David Warner and Glenn Maxwell shredding the Indian bowling attack into smithereens.
Dhoni is well aware of the challenges. “It has been difficult for us,” he said before the warm-up match against Afghanistan, in which Rohit Sharma scored 150 as a semblance of hope. “When the batsmen click, the bowlers don’t and when the bowlers do, the batsmen don’t. We need to sort that out.”
With a toothless bowling attack and out-of-sorts top order who are yet to fire against quality attacks, India look ill-fit to take on the neighbours who have smelled a chance to change the run of play in the World Cup clashes. This time, the Indians will sorely miss Tendulkar, who has played a significant role in all the clashes against Pakistan.
The marquee game is expected to be the most-watched cricket match attracting over a billion viewers, which could eclipse the 988 million viewers who watched the game between the neighbours in the 2011 World Cup.
The quintessence of an India-Pakistan match is the display of emotions with fans from both countries wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Be it in the biriyani-flavoured high-octane Friday afternoons in Sharjah or in the cold and verdant venues in England or in the sunny stretches of Australia, wherever India and Pakistan meet, there is a fusillade of emotions and passions.