MUMBAI, (Reuters) – World Cup fever struck India seriously the moment it became apparent that the co-hosts would meet Pakistan in the second semi-final in Mohali this Wednesday.
Yuvraj Singh’s boundary off Brett Lee to win India’s quarter-final against defending champions Australia last Thursday sparked national euphoria.
It also relegated Tuesday’s first semi-final between 1996 champions Sri Lanka and New Zealand in Colombo to the status of a sideshow.
For the first time three Asian teams will contest the semi-finals while the India-Pakistan clash will be the first in India since 166 people were killed in Mumbai in 2008. India has blamed Pakistan-based militants for the attacks.
The two countries have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947 and relations have been tense since the Mumbai carnage.
They have subsequently agreed to resume formal peace talks and on Sunday it was announced that Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani had accepted an invitation from his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh to attend Wednesday’s match in the northern Indian town of Mohali.
On the cricket pitch the rivalry has been intense and, according to the Indian historian and cricket writer Ramchandra Guha, the television audience when India’s Sachin Tendulkar faced the former Pakistan bowler Wasim Akram exceeded the entire population of Europe.
Tendulkar, one century away from a scarcely believable 100 international hundreds, will face the new ball again on Wednesday before 30,000 spectators in the Chandigarh stadium.
He has already scored centuries against England and South Africa in the tournament, although India took only one point away from both those matches.
Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, who scored 175 in the opening match against Bangladesh, head a batting line-up of awesome potential which will face a versatile and successful Pakistan attack in a classic one-day confrontation.
Much of the credit for Pakistan’s progress in the tournament goes to captain Shahid Afridi, who has created unity from discord while bowling his brisk wrist spin to devastating effect.
CONFIDENT SRI LANKANS
Pakistan no longer play matches at home since the armed attack on the Sri Lanka team bus in 2009 and a corruption scandal overshadowed their tour of England last year.
Afridi and his team have responded by displaying a discipline rare in Pakistan cricket and the captain heads the list of tournament wicket takers with 21 victims.
“Shahid Afridi has done something quite remarkable in this tournament,” said former captain Imran Khan, who led Pakistan to their only World Cup triumph in 1992. “Shahid has done brilliantly.” India have not lost to Pakistan in four World Cup matches and if they are to qualify for the Mumbai final on April 2 two players seem critical to their success.
Zaheer Khan has bowled beautifully with both old and new ball throughout and Yuvraj’s prowess with bat and ball has won him a record equalling four man-of-the-match awards in the tournament.
As one Indian journalist delicately put it, Yuvraj’s “prosperous waist” and slow reflexes had been a subject of debate before the tournament. One century, four half-centuries, an average of 113.66 and 11 wickets with his slow left-arm spin have silenced the doubters.
While the Mohali match has attracted all the publicity in India at least, the eventual champions may well emerge from Colombo.
New Zealand are playing in their sixth World Cup semi-final, an outstanding achievement from a small country with a limited playing base.
But the heat and humidity of Colombo, the pace of Lasith Malinga and the magical variations of Muttiah Muralitharan and Arjantha Mendis proved too much in the group stages.
Captain Kumar Sangakkara, who scored 111 in that match, did not even get to the crease on Saturday against England as Tillakaratne Dilshan and Upul Tharanga struck centuries in an unbeaten opening partnership of 231.
Sri Lanka are consequently overwhelming favourites and Sangakkara believes a first all-Asian final featuring Sri Lanka is likely if “we keep our heads down and make sure we cover all the bases we have to cover”.