When Virat Kohli says the Pakistan game is no different from any other match, he knows nobody believes him. Neither does he himself likely believe what he is saying. But that is the politically right thing to do and he wants to cut the noise and ease the tension surrounding the match.
'It’s one more game' has been the official line about India playing Pakistan for a while now. Once, when a nosey journalist kept badgering Dravid to extract a headline-grabbing quote ahead of a Pakistan match, the Wall, true to his name, put a lid on the issue. "There is nothing different," Dravid stone walled, "this cricket match is still played by eleven players using a bat and ball."
In World Cup events, India has the wood over Pakistan but this contest is never an ordinary game. Just before the epic 2003 encounter at Centurion, South Africa, Indian captain Sourav Ganguly provided perspective about this game, one evening over dinner. "There is too much tension," he said, the strain clearly visible. "One of these days, somebody will have a heart attack," he added.
That, hopefully, won’t happen but players lose sleep thinking about the big game. Tendulkar admitted to nerves, nervousness, pressure and sleepless nights. But he knew how to make pressure work for him, turning it around and making him more determined. SRT, the champion, trained specially for the big occasion, no different from a bright student covering all bases before a crucial examination. After smashing a sizzling, match-winning 98 off 75 ( thrashing Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram ) he said he prepared one year for that game.
There is a reason for the high stake nature of an India-Pakistan game. Given our political history, any face off between the countries - whether in Kargil or in cricket - gets linked to izzat and acquires an added edge. In this background, a win lifts the morale of the nation and a loss, for instance at Sharjah with Javed Miandad’s last ball six, can be a lifelong scar.
I remember the first ODI at Karachi on the historic 2004 trip to Pakistan when, in a very tight game, Nehra defended 8 runs in the last over for India to cross the line. After the game, a relieved Nehra explained what went through his mind at the crucial time. 'The only thought in my mind was kahin Chetan Sharma no ho jaun,' he'd said. Chetan had been the bowler at the receiving end of Miandad's last-ball six in 1986.
The Indian team is aware of the criticality of the ‘must win’ Pakistan game. The pressure and expectation is corrosive but there is also a silver lining. 'Yeh hero banne ka mauka hai,' one player had said while speaking to me. If you make India win, everyone will remember you and you can tell the story to your grandchildren.
But for that, from a team perspective there is planning and practise needed, and from an individual standpoint, pride and passion.
Once, in a team meeting, Coach John Wright put context to the match, saying this was the time to stand up and get counted. He also made some observations that have, over the years, characteristic Pakistan cricket. 'We will beat them with intelligence, sound strategy and proper execution,' John had said. He also reminded players about Pakistan’s tendency to implode and self destruct.
Going into this Sunday game, Pakistan’s traditional turmoil is pretty much evident. The PCB has undergone a wholesale purge: Chairman Ehsan Mani has made way for Ramiz Raja and their CEO Wasim Khan has also departed, just days after New Zealand's abandoned tour of the country. Coach Misbah and Waqar Younus put in their papers, to be replaced by a totally new coaching staff - Mathew Hayden, Vernon Philander and Saqlain Mushtaq.
Compared to the past, an India- Pakistan game now has less intensity, the temperature has dropped a shade and defeat is no more equated to a national disaster. There is more maturity and understanding that, while prestige and pride is at stake, it is ultimately only a sporting contest.
Going into the key contest, both teams can look at positives. Pakistan is familiar with conditions in UAE, their second home. India is competition-ready, having gone through the second leg of the IPL on the same grounds where the World Cup will be played out.
But both have worries, Pakistan have their fragile top order, India have concerns regarding Bhuvaneshwar Kumar’s form and Hardik Pandya’s fitness.
Does India go into the game as favourites? Past World Cup records do favour Virat Kohli's team but in a T20 slog, the skill gap is reduced and no opposition can be written off, a cricket truth Bangladesh found out when stunned by the unfancied Scotland in the T20 World Cup qualifier.
(Amrit Mathur is a senior journalist, former GM of the BCCI and Manager of the Indian Cricket Team. He can be reached at @AmritMathur1. The opinions expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)