Bigger than Ben Hur. Of course it’s a cliche but it fits the bill. India against Pakistan – as far as sport is concerned, it does not get any bigger. Certainly it’s a mouth-watering prospect. It is also a reminder of the power of sport, and especially cricket. After all, the four semi-finalists come from predominantly Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian nations. Cricket ought to project itself as a melting pot and a healer. It cannot resolve all conflicts but it can open eyes and loosen tongues.
Heck, the Pakistan’s Prime Minister has accepted an invitation sent by his Indian counterpart to join him at the match. Doubtless the gesture is symbolic but it’s also significant. Now the respective home secretaries are meeting in Delhi. Until recently, these nations were not allowed to play cricket against each other. When they did, though, Wasim Akram took his victorious team on a lap of honour on an Indian ground, a gesture rapturously received.
All sorts of bigwigs are attending the match, more than can be found in Dame Edna’s closet. The governors of Goa, Nagaland, Pondicherry, Manipur and Punjab have asked for tickets, the latter indicating that he was bringing an entourage of 10. The Gandhis are coming. Socialites, film stars and models are coming. One official said that, ”People I have not heard from for years have somehow managed to get my number and are asking for tickets. My phone has been going haywire.”
Black market prices have sky-rocketed. The Indian Express reports that ”cricket buffs are willing to go to any lengths to see the match”. Tickets costing 100 rupees ($2.17) are worth 10,000. Now fake tickets are flooding the market. Meanwhile, Yuvraj Singh, the local hero (he drives around in a green sports car and owns a garage) is feted wherever he goes. Supporters ask after the location of the next party but he shrugs and says he’s finished with all that. And the Punjab is hardly a cricketing stronghold. Pity Eden Gardens is not staging the match. Kolkata is in the bad books.
Security will be watertight. Anti-aircraft guns and commandos have been added to an already vast collection of police and soldiers. The SPG – Special Protection Group – has been asked to guard the VIP enclosure and ensure all goes smoothly inside and outside the stadium. Numerous undercover agents have been sent to Chandigarh. Everyone is on high alert. The city is at fever pitch
Not that it’s all tense. Groups of peacemakers have printed 10,000 flags and 20,000 stickers containing the symbols of both nations. Others have sewn the two flags together. Female students have prepared umpteen placards saying ”Koi bhi jeete koi bhi hare, jeet hamari hai” (Whoever wins or loses, we win). Better than anyone else, they know it is only a game.
Meanwhile, in another land not so far away, another semi-final is taking place, one between two much smaller nations without any bonds to break or bind but each with their own stories, about earthquakes and civil wars and so much else, good and ill and all forgotten for a day as their cricket teams strive to fulfil their dream
Australians are proud of their achievements on the cricket field. Sri Lanka has not done too badly either. Despite a smaller population and all sorts of trials and tribulations, they have won one World Cup and reached the final last time only to encounter a hurricane named Gilchrist. Now the Lankans hope – even expect – to contend for the trophy again.
After demolishing England, the hosts start as favourites but that match took place two days ago, leaving little time to recover – contrastingly the powerful Indians have had six days to nurse their wounds. Towards the end, too, Murali was limping. If he plays it will be his last match for his country on his own soil. If his team loses, it will be his last appearance for his country anywhere, bringing to an end one of the game’s most remarkable careers. Only spoilsports any longer begrudge him.
New Zealand is the fresher side, and will adjust to conditions than the sorely stretched Poms. Amazingly, it is the Kiwis’ sixth CWC semi-final, and naturally they yearn to reach the final for the first time. Ross Taylor and Daniel Vettori remain their outstanding players but the entire team is playing with confidence and commitment.
By all accounts, John Wright, the coach, and Allan Donald, the bowling expert, have brought knowledge, toughness and common sense. Any leadership group that can turn Jesse Ryder into a match winner, absorb not one but two McCullums, play three spinners, and survive so many setbacks deserves its successes.
By Thursday, the outcomes will be known. For now it is enough to wish all concerned peace and cricketing prosperity.