Agencies

DHAKA-The World Twenty20 steps up a gear Friday as cricket's top eight sides enter the fray, with Pakistan seeking a historic win against India in the second round's standout clash. Minnows of international cricket have been slogging it out in the expanded 16-nation tournament, with two qualifying spots and a chance to join the big boys up for grabs from round one.

In the Super-10 stage, Asian giants Pakistan and India will be joined in Group Two by the West Indies, Australia and one of the successful qualifiers. The other qualifier will join South Africa, Sri Lanka, England and New Zealand in Group One with two sides from each group advancing to the semi-finals. The identity of the two qualifiers from round one will be known just hours before Pakistan bid to defeat arch rivals India for the first time at the World Twenty20. Pakistan qualified for the semi-finals in all four editions of the World Twenty20, winning the tournament in 2009 in England after being runners-up to India in the inaugural event in 2007. India, however, have not made the semi-finals since their title win despite the popularity of the T20 Indian Premier League over the last six years. True to the unpredictable nature of T20 cricket, there have been different champions each time. England won in 2010 and the West Indies triumphed in 2012.

Due to various reasons, few of them cricketing, Pakistan and India don’t play each other all too often bilaterally. When Pakistan toured India for two Twenty20 Internationals and three One-Day Internationals in December 2012-January 2013, it was the first bilateral showdown between the teams since 2007. Consequently, when they face off in multi-nation events such as the World Cup, the Champions Trophy or the World T20, there is an added external edge that the protagonists are likely to be influenced by.

Pakistan-India matches are decided as much on strength of mind as on cricketing skills is no empty statement, no fanciful exaggeration. The air of nonchalance that players from both sides embrace is in itself a dead giveaway. It is impossible not to be sucked into the emotion that surrounds this particular contest. Admittedly, it is no longer the end-of-the-world battle it once used to be, but don’t believe what the players tell you. Pakistan v India can never be just another cricket match. Shahid Afridi’s tournament-ending sixes off R Ashwin will still be fresh in the memory of the fans as well as the players from both sides when M Hafeez and Mahendra Singh Dhoni stride out for the toss at the Sher-e-Bangla on Friday night. It was at this same venue that, three weeks back, an Afridi-driven Pakistan had ended India’s Asia Cup interest with an extraordinary last-over, one-wicket victory. That passage of play will have little or no bearing on what happens on Friday; in saying that, fans and experts tend to keep harping on match-changing, tournament-defining moments, so it will be naive not to expect the players themselves to at least reflect, if only in passing, on those spine-tingling moments.

If Pakistan’s fans will take heart from the Afridi pyrotechnics, India’s supporters will point to the remarkable statistic of Pakistan never having gotten the better of their side in eight tries combined in the 50-over and Twenty20 World Cups. Again, this will not influence the outcome of what happens on the morrow, but as those beyond the immediate core group of both teams look for omens and portents, such coincidences do come in handy.

If there is, however, one cricketing logic driven pointer, it is the vast difference in the quantum of T20I cricket the two teams play. Pakistan have played the most T20Is of the eight major Test-playing nations, 78, while India have played the least, 46. India’s players have repeatedly pointed to the experience and exposure gained by being a part of the IPL, and while that can’t be disputed, the value of turning out as a team for sustained periods of time can never be overestimated.

Their build-up to the competition has been similarly patchy – India lost their first warm-up tie to Sri Lanka, then overwhelmed England in its second game, while Pakistan took the opposite route, getting the better of New Zealand before being brushed aside by South Africa, when they were rolled over for 71. Just how much should be read into these results is open to conjecture. Teams use these warm-up games to suss up conditions, work out strategies, test out the bench and identify solutions for potential problem areas. Towards that extent, no matter the results, both teams should have garnered useful information about themselves. They would also have picked up more cues, if they were necessary at all, about the conditions at the Sher-e-Bangla, the nature of the pitch, the quantum of dew, the combination that will work best given the conditions. Homework done, it’s now time for the real deal – for three hours of what everyone hopes will be pulsating action.